The Rewards of Assuming Positive Intent

May 3, 2011
7 Min Read

We live in a time when public discourse has become hostile, conspiracy theories abound, and the uncertainty of the economy has people covering their backs in an effort to protect their jobs.  We’ve been raised to be careful who we trust, and we’ve learned that not everyone who smiles at us is our friend.  We’ve been conditioned to be suspicious, to think that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.  If a person offers advice, we might dissect it to figure out what their “real” agenda is.  And if someone disagrees with us or calls out an area where we might need improvement, we may become defensive because we feel threatened or criticized on both a professional and personal level.

What it Means to Assume Positive Intent

By now, we’ve all learned that assuming positive intent in the workplace means consciously choosing to assume that our co-workers are operating to the best of their ability, and are acting with the best interest of the company and their colleagues in mind.  It means when we are presented with a situation in which we might feel attacked or criticized, we have to take a step back and look at it from a new angle.  It also means that what feels like a very real threat may be someone actually trying to help us grow and be more successful - to believe that the person speaking has no hidden agenda.

Mitigate the Risk of Assuming Positive Intent

When we first start practicing this, it may make us feel vulnerable.  After all, assuming positive intent requires that we open ourselves up to a new way of thinking and feeling, and there is the very real risk that some of the people we are trusting may actually have a hidden agenda.

This risk can best be mitigated by creating a culture where assuming positive intent is the default. Let’s face it:  we are all capable of communicating in ways that can be misinterpreted. Knowing that our message -- whether its clear or not -- will be received by people who will give us the benefit of the doubt and work with us to find the real meaning of our statement establishes trust. There are steps you can take towards building a culture of trust on your team or at your organization by offering each other feedback and beginning to figure out better ways to communicate.  This also allows the originator of the message to take a moment to re-think their position if their intent wasn’t as positive as it was assumed to be. ;)

The Rewards

As Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi said in a 2008 interview with Fortune Magazine, “'When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, “Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.'”

In addition to saving valuable energy by circumventing unnecessary stress and emotional cycles, assuming positive intent can improve your professional life in a number of ways:

  • A team that has a policy of assuming positive intent will usually be  more efficient and better at collaborating because of improved communication.
  • As a person who assumes positive intent, you are someone people can be more comfortable collaborating with and as a result you may get more offers to partner on projects or drive initiatives.
  • When you assume positive intent you let others know you have confidence in them, and people will often go to great lengths for someone who believes in them.

So the next time someone sends you an email that makes you feel uncomfortable or says something to you that makes your blood start to boil a little, take a step back.  Assume positive intent and if you can’t find the positive in what the person is saying, talk to them.  Calmly let them know you don’t understand and open up a dialogue.  You will be surprised by what you learn and how much your relationships will improve.

Can you think of other benefits of assuming positive intent?

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