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The power of assuming positive intent

My greatest leadership weakness, and how I’m learning to overcome it…

My parents were in town last week. During one conversation we had, my mom shared an opinion that I strongly disagreed with. And as I responded to her, she said this to me:

“You’re getting defensive.”

Throughout my life, I’ve heard this quite often. Getting defensive is my greatest personal weakness. It’s a terrible habit of mine that I’ve been aggressively working to counteract, especially in the last few years.

When I hear something I don’t want to hear, I jump to conclusions about why that person is saying that thing. Instead of trying to genuinely hear out the other person, I’ve already decided in my head that they’re misinformed, or have an ulterior motive, or don’t have my best interest in mind.

This tendency of becoming defensive doesn’t just show up in my personal life…

As the CEO of Know Your Team, I’ve felt moments of my own defensiveness creep up when our programmer Matt has made a suggestion about how to respond to a customer support request, or when he’s critiqued a layout of a design I’ve mocked up.

This defensiveness is dangerous. Because when you’re defensive, you stop listening. And when you stop listening, you shut out critical information that could benefit you. Whether it’s from your mom or from your co-worker, you have an opportunity to learn something meaningful… such as, how you need to be more generous with your time to others, or an idea that leads to increased sales in your business.

But when you become defensive, none of that information reaches you. Defensiveness cuts you off from learning.

Over the years, I’ve noticed the root cause of my defensiveness: I misread the intention behind what someone is saying.

For example, when I react defensively to my mom’s critique, it’s because I think she’s just being negative. Or when I react defensively to a suggestion Matt has about a design, it’s because I assume he’s trying to advocate for something else that he created.

When you accuse another person of bad intentions, you create defensiveness. Instead, assume good intentions, and your defensiveness goes away. That is the best way to combat defensiveness.

In fact, Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, describes learning to assume positive intent as the best advice she’s ever received:

My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, “Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.” So “assume positive intent” has been a huge piece of advice for me.

Now when I feel myself starting to get defensive, I remind myself to take a step back and assume that the other person has good intentions.

With Matt, if you know him, you know one thing is clear: he’s vocalizing a suggestion because he truly cares about Know Your Team.

And if you know my mom… Well, I don’t think there’s another person on the planet who has more of my best interest at heart!

Recognizing this doesn’t mean I’ll submit to whatever Matt’s suggestion is when he offers it. And it doesn’t mean I’ll always end up agreeing with my mom when she shares her opinion.

But it does mean I’ll widen my mind. I gain a greater understanding and perspective of a situation. By truly listening to the other person’s viewpoint, I can make a more informed decision.

So when your employees raise a concern, don’t assume that it’s because they’re just miffed about their current job titles or how long the last client meeting was. That might very well be their underlying motivation — but you shouldn’t rush to that conclusion right off the bat before even hearing them out.

Assume positive intent. Thank them for their feedback. And then listen. Don’t interrupt. Ask questions. Clarify where they’re coming from. And then form your own opinion about the content of what they’re saying and what their true intentions might be.

Is it a bit more work to navigate the friction that comes from assuming positive intent, and not merely brush off someone’s idea?

Absolutely. But that friction is productive energy — it pokes holes in my own thinking and strengthens the actions I do take.

When I choose to assume the best intentions in others, I become a better leader, co-worker, family member and person. I don’t practice it as often as I should, but I’m vigilantly committed to working on it until I do.

🌻 One of the best ways to practice positive intent is when you ask for feedback from your team. Be sure to use our Culture Questions in Know Your Team to do this. We give you 300+ employee pulse survey questions backed by research. From our Culture Questions, you’ll get honest, meaningful feedback from your team. You’re guaranteed to learn something new every single week. Ready to see what I mean? Try our Culture Questions in Know Your Team today.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.