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Assume Positive Intensifies

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.

Which leads us to a more fundamental dilemma. In a piece for Medium last year, Ruth Terry, quoting the Kirwan Institute’s Lena Tenney, summarizes it aptly:

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.

Antigone’s Voice

First of all, No

Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash

A couple months back, I saw Antigone in Ferguson at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn. The project pairs dramatic readings of Sophocles’ Antigone with a moving choral arrangement performed by a diverse cast of activists, students, police officers, and Ferguson & NYC community members. I don’t tend to go for gospel, but these stunning voices shot through me like a revelation. The powerful, vulnerable expression of the human voice — a profound manifestation of the human capacity for creativity and beauty — broke my heart and raised my optimism for humanity. I got a lot out of the discussion of racial injustice following the performance, too. Don’t miss it if you get the chance.

The relationship between Antigone and King Creon struck me in a new way, no doubt because recent encounters with autocratic and sexist behaviors have been front-of-mind lately.

The play depicts Creon as the relatively thoughtful king of Thebes and doting uncle to Antigone and her sister, Ismene. He forbade the burying of Polynices while still in the heat of the just-ended civil war, and, despite his advisors' best arguments, stubbornly rejects revoking the law. His inability to admit mistake despite the clarity of its recklessness — even to his own mind — exemplifies classic authoritarian behavior: never admit error. Naturally it leads to his downfall.

While Creon’s advisors appeal for revocation of the law, his niece, Antigone, refuses to submit to it, and declines to compromise her integrity or the tone of her voice when speaking against it. She deliberately flaunts the law by burying her brother, makes makes no attempt to deny it, and angrily excoriates Creon at her very public trial. His intransigence will be his downfall, she proclaims. The girl doesn’t sugar-coat it, and in her passion, her voice rings out loud and true to all assembled.

But, to Creon’s ear, shrilly.

Stung by Antigone’s passionate defiance, Creon finds her tone reason enough to ignore the substance of her argument, to dismiss the risks she highlights. The entire community rallies to her cry, but Creon, blinded by his bruised ego, commits to his folly and sentences Antigone to death. It is his undoing, and a tragedy for Thebes.

One can learn a lot from Creon.

How often do we discount a woman’s message because of her tone? When passion speaks truth to power, what reasons do we find to dismiss it? When someone cares, but poor leadership prevents understanding and growth, does the anger, the passion, the righteousness wound the ego or motivate action?

Passion is a virtue, and tone a reflection of commitment. People who care about their world — their work, their environment, their society — will be angry when it fails them. If it stings when they tell you that you’ve made mistakes, that you’re failing them and other people, put ego aside, recognize that your implicit biases might seek reason to dismiss them, and instead, simply listen.

My fellow white dudes, don’t be like Creon. Recognize your fallibility, head off your urge to disregard feedback in the name of your discomfort, and beware the ego reflexively assigning labels such as “whiner”, or “negative nelly”, or even “not focused on problem-solving”. This, too, tells you something. Because the people who don’t care say nothing. Those with the passion to speak and the willingness to do so expect more of you. They may be disappointed in you or your actions, but want you to take the opportunity to be better, to admit and rectify your mistakes, and to set things on a better path.

So maybe let’s take a stab at meeting their expectations.

Founding Fodder

We the People

Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash

Tone is set from the top, they say. I once started a company and ran it for 10 years, but I rarely thought about leadership, let alone setting the tone. It mattered little, since I was the sole employee for most of that time. Now I ponder these topics a lot, as I watch leaders fail to consciously create and promulgate an ethical organizational culture. I don’t mean they’re unethical, though some might be. I mean they, like me, never gave it much thought, or recognized its importance.

This myopia degrades long-term prospects, leaving employees and partners to invent and impose their own interpretations of the organization’s nature, motives, and goals. Without a clearly-defined direction, people make their own way, and despite the best intentions, those ideas surely don’t quite align with the underpinning ideas and expectations of leadership.

Constituted Outline

Next time I find myself in the position to shape an organization — found a company, create a new group, organize a team — I will give careful thought to these issues, and formalize them in foundational documents that provide focus and direction for the duration. A sort of Organizational Constitution. And like any constitution, its articles will both set the tone and encode the rules.

Preamble: Culture

Culture establishes an environment in which members of the organization feel cared about, respected, valued, and physically and psychologically safe; where they understand what they’re a part of and fulfilled by their roles. Culture recognizes what people can contribute, and finds ways to let them do so. It lets them know there’s a place for them, and that they actively contribute to the Mission.

Culture cannot be legislated, of course, but a preamble announces intentions, sets the tone, and establishes the foundation on which the rest follows.

Article 1. Values

A clear articulation of the organization’s Values — its principals and beliefs. These comprise both internal-facing expectations for members as well as global values and beliefs defining the organization’s place and role in the world. Ideally, they’re the same. Such values inform expectations for partners, investors, customers, and users. Leadership must demonstrate these values in their everyday work, and always be mindful of them when making decisions. Examples of values meaningful to me include:

  • Humaneness
  • Empathy
  • Privacy
  • Security
  • Diversity & Inclusivity
  • Respect
  • Empowering the disempowered
  • Making the world a better place
  • Advancing social justice
  • Doing the right thing
  • Making people happy/​​productive/​empowered/​independent/delighted
  • Innovation
  • Integrity
  • Quality
  • Teamwork
  • Accountability
  • Responsibility
  • Passion
  • Sustainability
  • Community
  • Courage
  • Focus
  • Excellence
  • Collaboration

Article 2. Vision

The Vision lays out how the organization wants to make its dent in the universe. It focuses on the future, and what the organization ultimately seeks to become. It should align closely with the Values, bringing them to bear to define the organization’s purpose, and describe the long-term, measurable goal. The Vision answers questions such as:

  • What are our hopes and dreams?
  • What problem are we solving for the greater good?
  • Who and what are we inspiring to change?

Article 3. Mission

The Mission focuses on the now, and defines how the organization goes about achieving its Vision. It must never contradict the Vision or Values; indeed, they shape the Mission. It’s the core of the business, and from the Mission come Strategy and Execution. A mission statement embodies the Mission by answering questions such as:

  • What do we do?
  • Whom do we serve?
  • How do we serve them?

Article 4. Brand

Closely aligned with Values, the Brand defines the organization. The brand commits to the Values, Vision, and Mission, recognized both internally and externally, so that anyone can say what the organization stands for and how it goes about achieving its goals. Decisions that might erode the Brand or violate its underpinning Values must be avoided.

Article 5. Strategy

The Mission is the “what”; the Strategy is the “how”. The Strategy describes how the organization intends to execute on its Mission to achieve its Vision. It should be high-level but practical, goal-focused but not methodologically imperative. It defines objectives that clearly demonstrate value for existing and prospective constituents (customers, users, etc.) while adhering to — and never corroding — the organization’s Values and Vision.

Article 6. Execution

Everyone in the organization should be aware of what the Strategy is, what its objectives are, and how it furthers the Mission while adhering to its Values. Recognition of and continual reinforcement of the Strategy and objectives creates focus, providing a guide for decision-making. Ultimately, Execution means delivery. It requires meaningful goals to fulfill the Strategy and the achievement of its objectives: shipping product, meeting deadlines, effectively promoting products and solutions, and acquiring happy constituents who enjoy the fruits of the organizations, who derive benefit and value from them.

Article 7. Structure

The organization Structure must enable it to effectively execute the Strategy. That means cohesive teams with with clear mandates and the focus and autonomy to effectively execute. Strong coupling of deliverables across teams ought to be minimized, but expert consultation should be provided where needed. Everyone in the organization should be aware of the Structure, and understand their roles and the roles of other teams.

Article 8. Communication

Leadership must be aware of all of the above tenets and invoke them them regularly. Speak every day about what the organization believes in (Values), what it wants to see in the world (Vision, Mission), and how it contributes to making that world (Strategy, Execution). Communicate consistently and constantly within the context of the products made and services provided — toward the output of the Strategy, the organization’s deliverables. Demonstration of the alignment of the Strategy to the Values of the organization must be continuous, and always consulted when making decisions.

This Communication must be verbal, but also written. Guiding documents must outline all of these aspects, and tie all the pieces together. So in addition to the constitutional articles that define the Values, Vision, Mission, there must be living documents that articulate the Strategy for achieving the Vision and Mission. These includes road maps, planning documents, specifications, promotional plans and materials, organizational structure, team and role definition, etc.

Pursuit of Happiness

Inconsistency of these articles abounds in the business world, since companies seldom convene a constitutional convention to create them — but sometimes because internal- and external-facing messaging varies. It need not be the case.

Perhaps working through these topics with a team will help constitute the grounds on which the organization functions and presents itself to its members and the world. Even if some members disagree with or are indifferent to some of its tenets, all will appreciate the clarity and focus they engender. And an organization with purpose gives its members purpose, meaning to their work, and satisfaction in the furthering of the mission.