People struggle with this, and they don't have to

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In our work with helping teams become more effective, we often help the team establish shared norms that everyone commits and works toward applying with each other. These aren't "Mind your manners" wish-lists - these are operating standards that every person commits to in order to enable everyone's best at work.

During the process where the team co-creates these standards, we (Trebuchet Group) provide them structure and examples of what other teams have found helpful. One example many teams gravitate toward is:

Assume positive intent

This is a great standard for people to aspire to. If whenever someone came to me with what I perceived as a ticked-off, picky, probing, or [insert your pet-peeve here] attitude, AND I was able to assume positive intent, a lot of unhelpful drama would not occur. If I  - before I had a negative emotional reaction - could tell myself "Hey, this person cares, and they are trying to help us succeed as a whole the best way they know how so I shouldn't take this personally," then we would have much more understanding and much less friction in our work life.

Yet "Assume positive intent" is sometimes too high a bar for people to clear. The story they are telling themselves, based on a history of emotions, is just too strong for them to be able to imagine the other person actually wants something positive for them.

"Assume negative intent" is the default which is oh-so-easy to achieve. Imagine the worst, and we won't be let down/surprised/disappointed/vulnerable. We know that doesn't work, but we can't make it positive. So what can we do?

Challenge your own assumptions of negative intent

I was cut off once while riding my bicycle by a car that:

  1. Was speeding
  2. In the process of making a dangerous left turn
  3. While running a red light, and
  4. Almost hitting my bicycle and me

I was about to give him a very vigorous certain gesture because clearly he was a danger to society and not caring about killing people when I realized I had seen:

  1. A look of panic on his face
  2. And a reclined passenger seat
  3. With a long-haired person who had a very distended belly
  4. All headed in the direction of the hospital

While this information was not conclusive, it allowed me to challenge my own instantaneous negative assumptions of why this driver was behaving in this way.

I encourage you to challenge your negative assumptions - "She's doing this to spite me." "It's all a power trip for him." "There she is, currying favor." "He knows the rules so he must just be doing this to ________." 

You may not be able to clear the bar of assuming positive intent. Yet if you are able to leave space for a person not to be guilty of a crime he or she did not intend to commit, you are leaving space for everyone to work together and be a little better.

Chris is Trebuchet Group's founder and leader.

Chris is Trebuchet Group's founder and leader.

Including you.

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Chris Hutchinson

As CEO of Trebuchet Group, Chris Hutchinson thrives working with clients and his team to improve organizational clarity, teamwork, and leadership impact.

After years of building Legos® and tree houses around the world, Chris earned his Mechanical Engineering degree and followed that with an MBA. His experiences in the military and the business world taught him great leadership can be learned, and everyone is in some way a leader.

Clients and peers describe him as an inspirational catalyst for positive change. He is the author of Ripple - A Field Manual for Leadership That Works.

Chris and his wife live, garden, and bike in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have four children. He has an unrequited love affair with brownies.