Lets talk about that well-worn bit of wisdom: “assume positive intent.” On the surface it’s excellent advice: practice empathy by mindfully assuming that people may create issues despite their best intentions. You’ve heard the parables, from Steven Covey’s paradigm shift on the subway to David Foster Wallace’s latent condemnation of gas-guzzling traffic and soul-sucking supermarkets. Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi has popularized the notion to ubiquity in corporate America.
In practice, the assumption of positive intent enables some pretty serious anti-patterns.
First, focusing on intent downplays impact. Good intentions don’t change the outcomes of one’s actions: we still must deal with whatever broke. At best, good intentions enable openness to feedback and growth, but do not erase those mistakes.
By downplaying actual impact, assuming positive intent can deprioritize the experience of already marginalized people.
“All of this focus on intention essentially remarginalizes a person of color who’s speaking up about racism by telling them that their experience doesn’t matter because the person didn’t mean it that way,” says Tenney, who helped create interactive implicit bias learning tools for the Kirwan Institute.
This remarginalization of the vulnerable seriously undermines the convictions behind “assume positive intent,” not to mention the culture at large. But the impact transcends racial contexts: it appears wherever people present uncomfortable issues to people in a dominant position.
Take the workplace. A brave employee publicly calls out a problematic behavior or practice, often highlighting implicit bias or, at the very least, patterns that contradict the professed values of the organization. Management nods and says, “I’m glad you brought that up, but it’s important for us all to assume positive intent in our interactions with our co-workers.” Then they explain the context for the actions, or, more likely, list potential mitigating details — without the diligence of investigation or even consequences. Assume positive intent, guess at or manufacture explanations, but little more.
This response minimizes the report’s impact to management while simultaneously de-emphasizing the experience of the worker who voiced it. Such brave folks, speaking just a little truth to power, may start to doubt themselves or what they’ve seen. The manager has successfully gaslighted the worker.
Leaders: please don’t do this. The phrase is not “Assume positive intent for me, but not for thee.” Extend the assumption only to the people reporting uncomfortable issues. There’s a damn good chance they came to you only by the assumption of positive intent: if your coworkers thought you had ill-intent, they would not speak at all.
If you feel inclined to defend behavior or patterns based on presumption of good intent, avoid that reflex, too. Good intent may be key to transgressors accepting difficult feedback, but hold them accountable and don’t let assumptions stand on their own. Impact matters, and so must consequences.
Most importantly, Never use the assumption of good intent to downplay or dismiss the crucial but uncomfortable or inconvenient feedback brave souls bring to you.
Assume positive intent in yourself, never assert it in others, and know that, regardless of intent, problems still must be addressed without making excuses or devaluing or dismissing the people who have suffered them.