Assume positive intent at work
I want to start this article by asking you to consider a question: How often do you go into work and think “I’m going to throw my coworker under the bus today!”
If you’re like most people, then your answer is probably “never!” Let’s be honest, we’ve all had those coworkers that you’d like to see crash and burn every now and again, but rarely do we go in with the intent of causing it through direct sabotage.
And yet, if our coworkers do something that negatively impacts us, our first assumption is that they did it with negative intent. This is the fundamental attribution error in action – a fancy psychological term that essentially says that when something goes wrong, we have a tendency to assume it was the result of someone’s disposition or personality, and underestimate the situational context that the behavior took place it.
Say someone cuts you off in traffic. Your instant reaction is “what a jerk!” But what if you knew that person was rushing to the hospital because they just got a call that their loved one had been in a car accident? The situational context changes everything – you can now see clearly that they’re not trying to be a jerk. They have no intent towards you whatsoever. They’re just doing the best they can.
Let’s apply this to the workplace. Maybe your coworker promised to get you an important document by the end of the day…but the next morning rolls around and it still hasn’t arrived yet. You’re on a tight deadline and you need it (literally!) yesterday.
You’ve got two basic options: You can assume negative intent, or you can assume positive intent.
- If you assume negative intent, it might look something like this: “Carl obviously doesn’t think my work is very important. Why else would he blow my needs off?! I’m going to give him a piece of my mind!”
- If you assume positive intent, it might look like this: “I wonder what happened with that document Carl said he would have to me yesterday? Maybe something else came up. I should check in and see if there’s anything I can do to help.”
You have full control over the choice you make regarding the path you’ll go down, and the path you choose is going to dictate your behavior towards your coworker in that situation. If you start by assuming negative intent, then you’ve effectively shut yourself off to other scenarios that don’t support your story and are more likely to have an angry, unproductive interaction. On the other hand, if you start with positive intent, you’re much more open to having a positive interaction and resolution the situation. Sure, it would have been great if you’d had that document yesterday, but you can’t go back and change the past. All you can do is more forward.
You will legitimately come across some situations at work where you coworkers really do have negative intent. It does happen! But it is the exception rather than the rule. So give your coworkers a break, and start by assuming their positive intent. If something goes wrong, don’t assume they’re out to do you in. Maybe their boss came down on them about something. Maybe they’re having a tough time at home. Maybe they just got a huge project dropped in their lap. Maybe they just haven’t had their coffee yet. Whatever the scenario, you set yourself up for greater success when you start by assuming that your coworkers are doing the best they can giving the context of the situation they are in.
Remember, staying positive in your perspective is not about letting your coworkers off easy – it’s about you being as productive and successful as you can be. Your assumptions about the situation dictate your behaviors. Positive intent leads to more positive behaviors. Negative intent leads to more negative behaviors. It’s pretty clear which is the most productive use of your energy.
Let me help you change your perspective and assume positive intent
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