Last Updated on 2023/07/27

True Insights#21 The Opposite Effect

Dear Friends,

I hope you and the people in your circle are well at this unusual and stressful time in history. We feel relieved to see how successfully the COVID-19 contagion has been managed in Taiwan. We are concerned about friends and loved ones in countries where the situation is still difficult and hopeful things will improve quickly in those countries.

The Opposite Effect

My subject today is one of the trickier aspects of leadership. I call it The Opposite Effect.

The Opposite Effect describes a situation where you say or do something with good intentions and it ends up backfiring. Sociologists call it a perverse outcome, which is an aspect of The Law of Unintended Consequences.

Whatever you call it, it’s an unwelcome and unexpected outcome.

Examples of the Opposite Effect

  • You care about your team members. You know they are working hard on challenging projects, so you take a walk around the office to see how everyone’s doing. Your intention is to show care and support, but they end up feeling like you are monitoring them.
  • You inquire about an important project one of your team members is leading and give some feedback in an effort to make it even better. They end up feeling disempowered, like you don’t trust them.
  • You receive negative feedback from a customer on one of your team members. You hold a short meeting to discuss it, like any good boss would. You speak objectively, passing on the feedback. Your intention is to be transparent and give the team member a chance to take corrective action. Unfortunately, your team member feels attacked and gets very upset.
  • You post on social media about an accomplishment of one of your team members. You are proud of her and want to share her success with the world. Later she comes to your office and asks you to remove your post because she does not appreciate this kind of publicity and prefers to keep a low profile.

The difficult truth is that no matter how skilled and caring a boss you are, your intentions are rarely 100% clear to team members. This leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding.

What Can You Do?

Many of these problems are preventable but they require us to slow down, clarify our intentions, increase our awareness of self and others, and learn from feedback.

Here I suggest a three step process to making sure we achieve our intended results when we communication with our team members.


First, clarify your intentions. Managers often act unintentionally. We get busy or we carry too much in our heads and suddenly we are speaking without thinking clearly about the purpose of the communication. I do it myself more often than I’d like to.

Whenever we feel an impulse to write or say something to a team member, we have to remind ourselves to take a little time to ask “What is my intention here?”

If we aren’t pausing to collect our thoughts or revising our words once in a while, we are acting too impulsively. At the same time, if we are afraid to do anything because we might get it wrong, we are moving quickly toward failure.


Second, ask yourself: “What is the most effective way to achieve my intention? How should I approach this?”

Some of the people we work with are masterful communicators. They are the exception. Most of us need to experiment and practice to get the message right most of the time. If you are speaking, you have think about your voice and your body language, in addition to your message.


Finally, deliver the message and evaluate the results. I wouldn’t worry about the slight possibility of failure if you’ve already done the work of setting your intention and planning your message.

Better to get the message out and see what happens. It will probably work. If it doesn’t, or you’re not sure whether you hit your mark, ask for feedback. Refine as needed the next time you deliver a similar message.

With practice and deliberate intention, over time we get better and better at achieving exactly the effect we hope to achieve.


Yours in learning,



Leave a Reply