Positive Intent: Good Leaders (and People) Assume It

Assume Positive IntentI often start workshops by asking that participants jot down one word that represents a time when they were harmed by someone else. Next, they are instructed to create circles around this word. Within each of these, they are to place some sort of descriptor of that situation – was the action of the other person unintentional or malignant, the result of the harm in practical, tangible terms. Finally, I ask them to list the emotions they experience toward the other person as a result of the harm or hurt they experienced. The most common emotions recollected tend to be anger, frustration, confusion, and distrust.

I then ask them to repeat this exercise on a fresh sheet of paper. However, this time, I ask them to think of an instance in which their actions harmed someone else. When it’s time to list the emotions they experienced as a result of harming someone else, the typical answers include sadness, remorse, guilt, and anxiety.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? When we experience harm from others, most times our emotional responses are agressive in nature. Yet, when we are the “harmers,” we typically feel bad for what has occurred, and our tendency is to want to emphasize the unintentional nature of our actions. The dichotomy is striking.

The reason for this exercise is to provide a prelude to a discussion on intentions, something with which many leaders (and many people, in general) struggle. It’s much easier to get mad when someone harms us or messes up something that indirectly affects us. Yet, this tendency does so much to harm our own ability to either build greater interpersonal trust or to create a learning environment between us and others.

What if we, as leaders and individuals (in any environment or relationship), taught ourselves to always approach injury (verbal and emotional) by assuming positive intent? Imagine the value gained by adopting this simple (but clearly not always easy) approach. Not only would both people be approaching a resolution from the same, non-defensive posture, but the trust and mutual respect for each other would be boosted. And equally important (if not moreso) is the ease by which forgiveness comes, when one assumes that injury was inflicted not out of malice or ill-intent, but simply because even your best employee or best partner is human. In so believing, the forgiveness needed to move forward as a leader (or in any relationship) is so much easier to provide.

“But I can’t forgive when something happens over and over again,” Rebecca whined to me, the look in her eyes a mixture of frustration and combativeness.

In fact, she could, and eventually, by the end of our coaching, she did. Simply put, assuming positive intent does not mean accepting true performance deficiencies over time. But it does require a more emotionally compassionate response that acknowledges the flawed nature of all of us (leaders AND followers). By accepting this fact, leaders are more likely to respond in a way that builds rapport, communication, trust, and respect. So, even if repeated mistakes eventually require letting someone go, that juncture can be reached and navigated from a position of caring, kindness, and respect.

To err is human….to forgive is divine. Be a divine leader, and reap the rewards in respect and deeper connection with your people.

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