Is assuming positive intent enough?

Feb 23, 2024 8:10 pm

Happy Friday,

Today, my son won an award at school for exemplifying one of the character attributes they're trying to teach. The award was for assuming positive intent. As the principal explained positive intent to the school and parents, I had to hide my smile.

Have you heard "Assume positive intent" at work?

I bet you have, and I bet you've seen some really interesting behavior from folks, too.

While assuming positive intent is pretty important in most environments and situations, I also don't think it's enough.

Assuming positive intent is useful in diffusing a situation that is escalating and getting people into a better frame of reference to work through an issue. It is not useful in solving the issue or circumstances leading up to this incident.

What I learned a long time ago is that the unspoken companion to the positive intent adage is the elephant-in-the-room parable.

If you're not familiar with it, the story is about how there is a creature locked in a conference room with no windows, and everyone is trying to figure out what it is. Each person is able to look through a crack or keyhole and comes away with their idea of what is in the room. Everyone has an idea, but none of them are elephants.

Now, this little parable is useful in explaining a lot of things, but in this case, I want to just keep it really simple.

Each person that looks into the room only sees a piece of the truth.

This partial truth creates a disconnect between everyone as each person is forced to operate on their small piece, which doesn't always fit with everyone else. The disconnect makes folks' behavior seem irrational or even malicious.

This is why we have so many companies and folks reminding each other of positive intent. The disconnect between what people know causes huge communication problems and disastrous mistakes.

So, when I'm working with clients, I pay attention to the strained situations. The situations where someone is going to say, "Lets assume positive intent." Then I go find out what each person knows. It is almost a guarantee that folks are operating on a fraction of the context, and it is creating an impossible situation.

For leaders, this is a lesson I don't think you can ever afford to forget. The folks reporting to you and down the line will wind up with only a fraction of the information they need. Every attempt to over-communicate, no matter how childish it seems, will get everyone a lot closer to seeing that there's an elephant in the room and eliminate the stress and mistakes that lead to someone saying, "Let's assume positive intent."



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