When You Assume, You Know What That Means – Or Do You?
I was taught to never make assumptions—until I started working for ArcherPoint. We actually have a written policy that states we must assume ONE thing, specifically: Assume Positive Intent. Yep, it’s a policy! Here it is, verbatim:
Policy: No one may enter into or continue an employment relationship with the organization without agreeing to Assume Positive Intent in our interactions with Clients and Colleagues. Assuming positive intent means consciously choosing to assume that our clients and colleagues are operating to the best of their ability and are acting in the best interest of the company and their colleagues. 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. If there is any question about a person’s intentions, we will confirm that person’s intentions with them directly and assume positive intent until we do so.
I’m fairly certain that this kind of policy is rare, and from what I’ve seen, it has a unique impact on our culture, the company we are, and how we treat one another. I asked a few people across our organization how “assuming positive intent” plays out for them, in reality. Here is what Suzanne Scanlan, our Marketing Manager, said:
“For me, I would say that getting in the mindset to assume positive intent has changed my relationships and encourages communication. Anytime I find myself reacting to a statement or action with anger or angst, I take a moment to pause and consider scenarios that may not come to mind at first for me. I realize that my point of view is just that – mine. After a cool-down period, I address the concern head on – with a conversation to better understand the other person’s point of view, motives, and reasoning. If necessary (often times it is not), we can then address my concerns so we each understand each other better. Relationships almost always improve when we communicate clearly and honestly with one another. The pause is key, too. Taking time to think before responding from a negative mindset is a must!”
When I talk with people about practicing this idea, the pause that Suzanne mentioned comes up again and again. Sometimes, assuming positive intent might look and feel like a conscious breath and a silent stating of “Assume positive intent” almost as a mantra. It’s magical how it can shift your perspective and lead to more effective outcomes. And it works its magic not only at work, but in our personal lives, like Cindy Streitenberger, ArcherPoint Delivery and Operations, says:
“I truly try to adopt this concept in both my work and personal life! It causes me to pause and think of potential reasons for the reaction I received and makes me investigate (most often internally) other options related to the situation – beyond the “negative” assumption I initially might have made. Just going through that thought process generally prepares me to enter into a conversation with an open mind rather than presuming I know all the background. It is amazing how often my first response/assumption was totally wrong and by simply pausing and thinking through what the positive intent might have been has really turned a situation that seemed to be very contentious into a very manageable situation.”
Our brains are built to assume the worst. It’s not our fault; we do that to keep ourselves safe. But most of us humans can probably identify a few times when assuming the worst didn’t play out in our favor. Assuming positive intent helps us at ArcherPoint make work easier and helps us make better decisions, like Elly Combow, our Controller, points out:
“Assuming positive intent has helped me with the frustration I feel when I think something is not a good decision. Before getting worked up about what someone said or did, I’ve learned to remind myself that they have a positive intent, and although their action may not have the intended consequence, they meant well and wanted to help the business and help the tribe grow. This helps me respond calmly and gives me the ability to have a meaningful conversation about intensions so we can work together to make sure the decision or idea works out successfully.”
Making It Easier On Ourselves and Others
Assuming positive intent does require a lot of each of us. It isn’t always easy to do, but it gets easier with practice. Giving each other grace and space, as well as the energy it takes to suspend our own judgement, is absolutely worth it as it’s connected to the ability to share different perspectives, to innovation, to kindness and empathy, to serving each other and our customers more effectively. Ultimately, it helps us make our own lives—as well as that of others and our customers—easier. And with life being challenging so often, isn’t that what so many of us crave?