Improve Your Company by Assuming Positive Intent

How many times have you worked with colleagues at various levels of an organization who had agendas that didn’t align with what was best for the company? I’ve been in a few, I’m afraid. I’ve seen team members focused on building their own careers, enhancing their standing, or defending their turf — instead of focusing on what’s best for the business. What’s even worse than these negative agendas is the effect they have on others. Gossip, agendas, and politics spread like viruses through an organization and quickly have adverse impacts on the overall culture. Soon other team members feel the need to defend and drive their agendas as well, all at the cost of what’s actually best for the company. It’s a waste of time, energy and people.

I’m not the only one who has noticed this phenomenon. Writing in Inc., Jim Hauden, CEO & Chairman of Root calls the absence of assumption of positive intent the “single factor that most contributes to the erosion of trust in the workplace.” He states that “assuming positive intent is the ultimate performance driver, but it is more uncommon than common.”

Similarly, in an oft-cited interview with Fortune, Pepsi CEO and Chairman Indra Nooyi has said that the best advice she ever got came from her father:

“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. …At your basic core you are saying, ‘Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.’”

Assuming positive intent means exactly what it sounds like; assuming that the person you are talking with means well and has come to the conversation with a positive purpose. It means going into every interaction assuming that the other person wants to build a great company just as much as you do. The real beauty of this approach is that it’s self-fulfilling. The more people in an organization that take this approach, the more others will do the same.

I’ve seen this over and over again across my entire career. I once had to fire the number-one sales rep in my company specifically because of his office politics. On a team that had always modeled transparency and authenticity, I could see members of the team being forced to defend and position themselves in their verbal and written communications. These behaviors went away after I parted ways with this particular sales rep.

Playing Politics is Not Required

Sometimes when I describe this approach, I’m asked, “But what if I’m dealing with someone who clearly has a negative agenda? Aren’t I leaving myself exposed? Don’t I have to ‘play politics’ to succeed in the face of this?”

Simply put, no you don’t. I don’t believe that playing politics is required to move up in the world. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. Work hard and smart, play well with others, be transparent and authentic, and always do what’s right for the team or organization. That’s the approach I subscribe to. If you find yourself on a team or in an organization where office politics are required I recommend leaving as soon as you can.

What you’ll usually find is that you can have an incredibly positive influence just by assuming positive intent. Don’t worry about what others are doing. Just keep moving forward from that assumption. The more you do, the more others will follow suit. By assuming positive intent and refusing to play politics, you immediately take all the steam out of someone else’s negative approach. Like ripples in a pond, your positivity will quickly spread through an entire organization.

David Atmaram Satterwhite has a 25-year track record of building and scaling worldwide sales, services and business development teams in both SaaS and on-premises models. He is currently Chief Customer Officer at PubNub where he oversees all customer-facing activities.

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