If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a couples therapist and organizational psychologist, it’s that many relationship conflicts emerge from a single root cause: assuming negative intent.
In romantic relationships, Dr. John Gottman says that “couples often ignore each other’s emotional needs out of mindlessness, not malice.” The same thing can be said about workplace relationships.
When we assume negative intent, we make negative assumptions about the other person. When we assume positive intent, on the other hand, we give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s not a coincidence that Apple, the world’s most valuable company, has “assume positive intent” as one of their core values.
Ultimately, assuming positive intent comes down to trust. It’s a lot more difficult to give someone the benefit of the doubt who has broken our trust in the past. Remember that conflict happens in healthy, stable relationships all the time. The hallmark of these relationships, though, is that these conflicts are repaired.
In workplace relationships, I’ve found that people are less likely to confront conflict with their colleagues because they often fear either the process of discussion or the outcome. But the reality is that ruptures need to be repaired so that it is easier to maintain the benefit of the doubt.
Small ruptures over time lead to big wounds. And assuming positive intent doesn’t mean letting others walk all over us, either. Certainly, this nuance can be lost in the remote workplace without either conversation or face-to-face interaction where tone and nonverbals can help us convey our messages. Email, for example, is used as a substitute and the written word can easily become misconstrued.
Here are a few examples of workplace scenarios with corresponding examples of negative and positive intent.
Example: Your colleague is late for a meeting
Negative intent: “This project isn’t a priority to them.”
Positive intent: “They probably have a good reason.”
Example: Your colleague doesn’t invite you to a meeting
Negative intent: “They don’t think I’m important.”
Positive intent: “They probably assumed I was busy and was not specifically needed for this meeting.”
Example: Your direct report misses a deadline
Negative intent: “They’re so lazy.”
Positive intent: “They’re probably dealing with something really critical right now.”
As you can see, shifting from assuming bad intent to assuming good intent requires us to retrain our brain to ask questions before making assumptions. It’s about leading with curiosity instead of critique. So the next time you find yourself jumping to conclusions about your colleague, ask yourself: am I assuming negative or positive intent?