Assume Postive Intent

Assume Postive Intent

Bear with me, because this might seem kittens-and-moonbeams, right out of the self-help aisle at Borders.  It’s not.

Recently, Fortune ran a piece asking all sorts of industry luminaries about the best advice they ever got — from their mentors, their bosses, their parents, whomever.  The entire article is worth reading, but what stuck with us in particular is Indra Nooyi’s blurb about always trying to assume positive intent.  It stuck so much that I hear it nearly every day.


If it sounds a bit too much Tony Robbins for you, hold on.  Take a second and think about it.  It’s deeper than you might think, because it requires conscious effort to break ingrained behaviors.

Assuming positive intent (or “APIing it,” as it’s known around here) is harder than it sounds — actually, much harder.  You have to think about it almost all the time at first.  It means that whatever life throws at you, especially as it relates to dealing with other humans, everyone would be better served if we all assumed that everyone is motivated by positive intent, instead of the other way around.

Which means we can’t just up and react.  Which means that we need a filter, at first, that we apply to discussions and events before reacting.  Which means that most of us have to re-wire ourselves away from what we’ve become used to.

Small or large, business life in general can be a battleground, and that stigma is well-deserved in many regards.  But to let that stigma create a blanket reaction tendency is a bad thing.  It’s cynicism hardening the otherwise eager intellect.

Next time you have a conflict at the office, client site or when someone acts a bit out of the boundaries of decorum, take a moment and try to remember to assume positive intent.  I don’t care if you have to take a deep breath, think of a grassy field, whatever.  Think before you react, and remember that maybe, just maybe, that person is acting out of positive intent, but just not in the way you would.

This may not cure all interpersonal or political business conflicts, but it’s a great place to start.

Great.  What’s in it for me?

A better culture, for starters.  I shouldn’t have to continue, because culture is where a company’s fiber is made or broken, but I will.

How about a less reactive management or project team?  How about communication that doesn’t default to a political or defensive context?

How about employees giving one another the benefit of the doubt?  How about your sales reps having a better understanding of client requests?

It goes on and on.  I seriously could write a list that would fry a 56K modem.  But the bottom line is that since culture and workplace ambiance are built at the micro rather than macro levels, so there might be something to the fine tuning.  Just might.


Yes, humans.  Stripped down to its essence, business is about people and the interactions between them.  Product, service, management pedigree and trendy cafeterias are all great, but when you boil it all away, it’s about people.  As Rands (Michael Lopp) says in Managing Humans, most technically-minded people are trained to manage bits, not people.  I extrapolate this one step further: most managers are trained to manage stasis and avoid conflict, not manage people or build a culture.  Sounds like a minor difference, but it’s not.  Not at all.

No cost

Finally, the reason to consider embracing API is because there is no cost to doing so.  None.  Zip.  Nada.  You’re looking at 100% ROI if embraced, zero investment energy/dollars lost if not.  It’s all about taking a step most businesses don’t and trying to actively consider the culture you’re building.

Culture isn’t something that comes with a business.  It’s something you pay attention to — like sales quotas, marketing plans, burn rates, venture funding — or it doesn’t happen the way you want it to.  Then, down the line, companies will hire management consultants to help fix or build a culture, and by then it’s too late.  Organic efforts are next to impossible, and your $275/hour management guru, despite having nice suits, won’t save you.

Assume postive intent.  Try it.  It might sound like pop-business advice, but the gods live in the details.  With no cost on the line, you’ve nothing to lose.

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