Do You Pass the Smile Test

Do You Pass the Smile Test?

A two-part series on the differences between intent and impact.

The Smile Test

A former colleague, Hugh Blane, shared a quote with me years ago I’ve never forgotten. I don’t know if he penned it, but it was called the Smile Test: “do people smile when you walk into the room, or out of the room?” When I share it, I usually get a chuckle at first, but then it gets quiet. I imagine we can all quickly think of people we know who either pass or fail the test with us, but I think it also gets quiet because we wonder if we pass this test.

The smile test relates directly to two key words about Behavior Styles: intent and impact. Simply stated, intent could be described as what you want others to do, feel, say, or think in response to something you say or do; impact is how your behavior lands on others. This is where the smile test comes in. 

[Take the Behavior Styles 360 to find out how you land with others.]

People Respond to Impact, Not Intent

People react or respond primarily to our impact, not our intent. Why? While they can’t know our intent for certain, they are very clear about the impact our behavior makes on them. They can only guess our intent based upon the impact of our behavior. 

So, if our impact is positive, people will smile (even if only internally) when you walk into the room. That’s important because people share higher levels of knowledge, talents, skills, and experience—meaning they give you more of the best they have—when our impact is positive.

As I think about this, a few impact questions come to mind:

  • Do others feel they can be open (indicating trust and safety) or a need to protect themselves (indicating uncertainty or fear) when they are with you?
  • Do they believe you perceive them as someone worth learning about and possibly from (indicating curiosity and humility) or that you don’t value them enough to listen to their stories and knowledge (indicating coldness or arrogance)?
  • Do they believe you are authentic (indicating integrity or honesty) or disingenuous (indicating flaky or manipulative)?

There are other questions but they all come back to this critical one: do you know the impact of your behavior?

For various reasons, this can be a difficult question to get honest answers to, especially if our impact is negative. If people are honest, we also might not like what we hear. But the answers are essential for us to know if we are going to create and sustain healthy relationships.

Getting honest answers to these questions is the most important development action you can take to become a better leader or team member. After that, an active, ongoing commitment to learn from what you’ve discovered by demonstrating constructive behavioral change to improve your impact is just as important. Sometimes this requires deep work.

[Read “Two Ways to Build Trust and Respect Among Coworkers“]

Improving Your Impact Can Require Deep Work

An example of deep work took place not long ago in the life of a close friend. She went through a time of severe and heartbreaking professional and personal challenges over 3 months that included the unexpected loss of a leadership position she had arduously worked to gain, her spouse deciding to leave her, a serious injury, and the sudden death of both a dearly loved family member and a friend. She was, understandably, completely overwhelmed.

She decided to take a two-week retreat to help in the healing process and shift through the experiences to see what she might learn about herself. Through the pain she became aware of how losses in her childhood had created deep fears of inadequacy and abandonment. She discovered that she had learned to cope with these feelings by bullying others and taking an intellectual approach to emotions, both hers and those of others. These patterns of behavior had created negative impacts on many people throughout her life.

[Read “I Respect Her But I Don’t Trust Her”]

It took time for her to identify a way to work through her past experiences but with the help of a skilled counselor she was able to do the deep work of healing and becoming a leader and team member who made a much more positive impact on others. 

As someone who has become aware that I do not always have the impact I want to have, I can testify that the work of discovery and change is easy to write about but difficult to do. Still, I’d rather work with the truth about my impact instead of just knowing and defending my intent. At the very least that will give me a much better chance of passing the smile test.

Upcoming: it’s not all about impact.

George is President and CEO at Effectiveness Institute. With 30 years of experience in leadership development and organizational management, he has helped organizations reach higher levels of performance in industries that include technology, finance, legal, academia, healthcare, automotive, aviation, and service.

He is an avid reader and musician who loves hiking around the PNW.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.