Assuming positive intent

Be honest, you assumed the boy was stealing a cookie didn’t you? You probably did it all the time when you were his age and we all know it takes a thief to catch a thief!

But what if….he’d been told he could take that cookie? Or if he was actually putting them out on the plate? Or if he was just counting them? What if…he wasn’t actually stealing that cookie at all?

Repeat after me…assume positive intent

We can all recall an occasion at work when people have assumed the worst of our intentions. It really hurts. And it’s a pain that lingers long after it turns out to be a warranted assumption, or not. It leads to an erosion of trust in colleagues and if it happens quite a lot, the rot of cynicism, insecurity, selfishness, defensiveness and suspicion can take hold. The words and deeds of others become constantly questioned.

What did she mean by that? They are avoiding me…they think I am not capable…he does not trust me…my face does not fit… he is saying that to put me down…she took the credit for my work…they are just in it for themselves…there is no point in putting myself forward for that…

Repeat after me…assume positive intent

I don’t know why I had never heard of the assume positive intent mantra until fairly recently. However, now I’ve seen it, I seemingly can’t unsee it. It’s a really sticky concept.

Assuming positive intent in the workplace is, for me, rather like the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this dilemma, the only way to get an optimal result for both prisoners is to trust that the other prisoner will assume positive intent and not accept the self-serving ‘deal’ on offer.

It seems to me that if everyone tries to assume positive intent in others, however hard that might be, then the net result is that everyone benefits. Firstly, it is so much healthier for you when you are not constantly dealing with negative thoughts – I personally find it exhausting. Secondly, it builds trust in those around us and encourages us to be curious (before we are judgemental) when we are working with others.

Does it mean that everyone has positive intent?  Not at all.  But just because 5% of people might have negative intentions, we should not treat the other 95% as if they do as well. 

Does it mean that we should excuse colleagues who inadvertently hurt others with their words and deeds – even if it was not their intention to cause hurt? I don’t think so. Everyone has to own the impact of their actions whether they were intended to hurt, or not. Assuming positive intent is a powerful mindset but is not an excuse. An unintended microaggression is still a microaggression that we might need to take responsibility for. But I think that the resolution can take place differently, with better outcomes, within a culture of assumed positive intent.

Repeat after me…assume positive intent

So why do we find ourselves so prone to assume negative intent? One reason is that it takes so very little effort. It is much more convenient to shift the blame to someone else, rather than do the hard work to seek to understand or identify the real root causes of the issue. Blaming someone else’s intent also shifts the attention from us taking any personal responsibility we might have for the situation.

Have I done this?  Sure.  I can recall several occasions where I have attributed not getting a particular job, for example, because of x, y or z attributional factors – classism, sexism, racism, agism… anything other than the fact that I was probably underprepared for the interview, un-inspiring and unable to show how I would be able to bring my previous experiences to bear.  I confess it has sometimes taken me some time to get around to the fact that the person they did appoint was simply much better than me!  I rarely make that mistake anymore – nowadays I try to always look for my own flaws instead of trying to look for excuses in others. 

Repeat after me…assume positive intent

Assuming positive intent is sometimes perceived as naive, weak and idealistic. As Putin was sending Russian troops to the border of Ukraine, was I really assuming positive intent? Not at all. Honestly, I was not sure what was going on and I was still hoping for some form of a diplomatic solution. However, I did intentionally try to place an assume positive intent lens over the situation. Did it change my view that Putin was well-intended? No. But it did force me to be more curious about the whole emergency. What is the history? What are the geopolitical issues? Economics? Who are the actors? Who controls the media? What has brought Putin to this point? Are the Russian people supporting Putin? What do the Russian people think about invading Ukraine? And so on and on.

How does this help? I think that my intentionality around assumed positive intent has helped me achieve a sharper perspective on the Russian invasion than I might have had. I don’t think it makes me naive or idealistic. Rather, I am hoping that it is helping me understand what is going on: to support me to be both dispassionate and compassionate in ways that I may not have done if I just assumed negative intent.

What cannot be avoided, however, is the certainty that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an absolute tragedy. Putin has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and he can’t be allowed to brush the crumbs away and hope no one has noticed.

Repeat after me…assume positive intent

Assuming positive intent is incredibly difficult to do. When we get hurt by others or see people like Putin in action, we can not help but see the worst in others. Perhaps that’s something we ought to fight too?

One thought on “Assuming positive intent

  1. Thank as aye Damian for a great post! This has come into sharp focus for me recently as I set cover for absent staff and when I get calls in the morning from colleagues who offer “apologies for the inconvenience” because they can’t come to work for myriad reasons. Chris – assume positive intent! I have to keep reminding myself.

    Liked by 1 person

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