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The magic of assuming positive intent

Leaders can save themselves a lot of heartache and misunderstanding when they assume positive intent on the part of others, writes Julie Winkle Giulioni.

4 min read


positive intent

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You’ve likely heard the old story about a driver on a dangerous, winding, narrow road who barely escapes a head-on collision when another driver comes at him swerving from around a blind bend. That oncoming driver gestures wildly and yells, “Pig!,” inspiring an angry response — until the original driver rounds the corner to discover a large pig in the middle of the road and realizes that he had been warned — not insulted.

Julie Winkle Giulioni
Winkle Giulioni

How frequently does this silly tale play out in the workplace? Today’s highly polarized environment teamed with unprecedented levels of stress and burnout have left many of us tender, reactive and prone to make our own decisions about the motivations of those around us. In some cases, there seems to be societal momentum that carries us toward negative assumptions and responses. And these internal processes affect the person making those assumptions and those around them. 

What if we performed a mental reset and made assuming positive rather than negative intent our default instead? Imagine the positive effect on:

  • Stress, mental health and physical wellbeing
  • Trust, communication and relationships
  • Business results (like quality, collaboration, innovation and service)

Assuming positive intent isn’t about playing Pollyanna or seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. It’s not about rolling over, being weak or not acting when necessary. Instead, it’s a deliberate mindset shift rooted in the understanding that we can’t read the hearts of others and, as a result, must learn about their motivation rather than assign it. It’s the discipline of withholding judgment, until there’s something concrete to judge. It allows us to interrupt the knee-jerk reaction to assign malintent and, in the process, preserve precious mental, emotional and relational resources.

Last week, I was removed from an invitation to a client meeting that had significant implications for my work with the organization. I felt excluded, marginalized and disrespected. It would have been easy to stew in those emotions and imagine the behind-the-scenes motivations. And it would have been destructive. Because within hours, my client contact called to apologize, explaining that the team had realized they didn’t have their act together and didn’t want to waste my time while they figured things out. We scheduled a meeting for the following week when they’d be better prepared — and I discovered their positive intent.

Imagine the number of instances like this that occur every day. The potential for negative assumptions and the downward spiral that follows is extraordinary. Equally extraordinary, however, is the magnifying effect of leadership behavior in this regard. Leaders who want to cultivate a culture of assuming positive intent within their groups can start with these three strategies.

  1. Model it — Employees follow a leader’s example, so master the art of assuming positive intent. When confronted with issues yourself, consciously take a breath, check the stories you’re telling yourself, consider the broader context, play out the negative consequences of negative assumptions, invoke your curiosity, and lead with questions to avoid jumping to destructive (and likely inaccurate) conclusions.
  2. Coach it – Actively help employees look at challenging situations through a different lens and to reframe emotionally-triggering situations with questions like:
    • What positive experiences have you had with this person?
    • What challenges might they be experiencing?
    • What positive reasons might exist for the behavior?
    • How might the situation work to your benefit?
    • How can you uncover the real — rather than imagined — motivations for the action?
  3. Broadcast it — Finally, find ways to build examples of positive intentions into the culture. Share stories of personal misconceptions, offer examples of misunderstanding (and those that were averted) and invite others to do the same. Seeding the group narrative with positivity can begin to rewire the habitual thought patterns that our modern world seems to have instilled.

Until the intent becomes visible, assume that it’s positive. It’s kinder to yourself and others to interrupt the debilitating downward spiral of negative assumptions and instead hold the space for positive thoughts and outcomes. (And don’t worry, there will always be plenty of time to respond differently if you discover that the metaphorical “pig” message from someone was actually an insult rather than a warning!) 


Julie Winkle Giulioni focuses on growth and development in the workplace, helping leaders and organizations optimize the potential of their people. She co-authored “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want.”

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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