Trust in Positive Intentions

The best career advice I ever got, from my friend and former manager Rich Vosburgh, is “Trust in positive intentions.” Following this advice makes my days calmer, my co-workers easier to collaborate with, and the number of times I look like an ass kept down to a minimum.

What Rich means is, start a conversation with the assumption that the other person intends to do good. Or at least isn’t out to do you harm.

On the whole, the people in your workplace are decent, are honest enough, and want the team to succeed. I’ve worked with a few people I would say are selfish, or perhaps self-centered, but nobody who was truly malicious. Not really. Not even when they were driving me out of my tree with their irritating behavior.

How does trusting in positive intentions help me deal with irritating behavior? It lets me step back, outside of myself and my irritation, and ask, not “Why are they determined to annoy me?” but instead “What might be motivating their behavior?” This is what saves me from looking like an ass… when I remember to do it before I go off half-cocked.

Trust in positive intentions, and ignorance

Usually the answer is that I don’t have all the information. There are other factors that, were I aware of them, would make that behavior make sense. This is especially true when it seems like managers are making “dumb decisions.” I remember when I was working for Big Manufacturer, I asked (out loud, in a department meeting of course) why we would dull our edge by buying some vendor’s off-the-shelf supply chain management software, instead of letting my team build it, given that our company dominates supply chain management. The answer was: Haven’t you noticed? We used to dominate; at this point, becoming average would be an improvement. Oh.

If I had started by assuming that the directors who were deciding to buy the vendor’s software had positive intentions, and that perhaps I didn’t have the whole picture, I could have asked, using a tone that conveys I am actually interested in the answer, “I thought we were the leaders in supply chain management. How will this new software give us a competitive edge?”

Trust in positive intentions, and awkward interactions

Some team interactions are rough for no other reason than a bunch of awkward introverts are trying to get a job done. Together. While nerds are easier for me to talk with than regular people, they’re still people, which means I’m still awkward. So I grant the same benefit of doubt when a conversation goes south. As many times as you’ve put your foot in your mouth, where you hear your words sounding nothing like you intended, maybe that just happened to the person you’re talking with—they meant well, but social anxiety made their brain fritz out.

Trust in positive intentions, and Google Translate

I led a development team located in Brazil. Early in the project, I get an email that they have “some doubts about the technical design.” Doubts? Really??

Yes, really. Because by “doubts,” they meant “questions” and were seeking clarification. Being non-native speakers of English, they merely chose a word that happened to inflame my own doubts about my design.

The testers from India would conclude their requests for me to reboot a server or whatever with “Please do the needful.” As in, now that I’ve asked for the thing I need in order to deliver the thing you need, would you please do that thing? No condescension intended.

Especially when the medium is text, without any tone or body language, your best bet is to trust in positive intentions, and read that text in the most neutral tone you can.

Trust in positive intentions, and improv

Sometimes people have different goals than you do. Not bad ones, just different. I like the approach presented in Crucial Conversations that says, seek to understand, and then be open to finding a solution that meets the goals of both of you. When you look at a conversation as a debate to make your point win over theirs, you are headed for a needless argument. Why does it have to be one thing or the other (A XOR B), why not both? Like the improv people say, look for “Yes, and…” solutions.

Trust in positive intentions, and fear

And sometimes people are just afraid. Over the years, the most antagonistic workplace behavior I’ve seen could always be traced down to secret fears. Self doubt. Imposter syndrome. Even arrogance comes from fear; confident people don’t need to posture for your approval, but scared people will go through gymnastics to show you how good they are.

And it makes sense. I don’t endorse this line of thinking, but I definitely understand it: If they find out I don’t know how to write JavaScript, they will think I am not competent at my job, and then I will get fired, and then I won’t be able to support my family, and thus I am not a worthwhile person. When a person feels their core identity is threatened, it means their safety and wellbeing are threatened, as well as their family, and they respond with a ferocious defense.

I remember when a colleague and I first undertook rolling out an agile project management style at Our Big Company. Because it was 2007, it was Scrum. I met a lot of resistance up and down the stack and had to do a lot of convincing—to managers, to the process team, to devs, to testers… The strongest pushback came from our project manager, the person I most needed to embrace this change and lead us to success. Why was he fighting me? He has the skills to be such a great scrum master. I need him to be our scrum master.

Suddenly it hit me: He thinks I want his job. He thinks I’m setting this up with me as the scrum master. Not to mention, the discourse around agile at the time had a lot of “ditch your project managers!” sentiment. He thinks I intend to freeze him out, make him irrelevant.

Heck no! I want to stay a developer. Once I had this epiphany, I was able to address it with him directly and clarify, first, I see him excelling at this role, and second, there’s no one better to be our scrum master. I highlighted for him the specific skills I saw in him that would make him great at this, and I asked him to take up the banner and join us in this campaign.

He turned out to be a fantastic scrum master and a champion for agile project leadership across the company. But to get there, I had to first see through the objections to spot the fear, which revealed itself after I asked myself, assuming he has positive intentions, why would he be acting this way.

Perhaps you’ve seen this in people in your organization. I mean, talk about positive intentions: They want so desperately to do a good job that they are going into fight-or-flight mode over it. How can you alleviate their fears?

Trust in positive intentions, and ask questions

I continue to learn from Rich’s advice. This blog post captures only some of the insights I’ve gained by applying it, or failing to. Asking questions is the recurring theme. Actually asking questions, where you actually want to understand more, starting from the position that your colleagues are competent and invested in the team’s success, will serve you well.

The book Crucial Accountability coaches us to abandon the story we’ve constructed about what the other person is thinking, and instead seek to genuinely understand what they are thinking. This will help you stay calmer, make you a more effective collaborator, and occasionally save you from looking like an ass.

About Sharon Cichelli

I am a Principal Technical Lead at Headspring, developing enterprise-changing software and coaching teams to deliver value without death marches. I am a .NET developer, open-source contributor, user group organizer, technical blogger, pinball fan, and Arduino enthusiast.
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  • I think this is great; I have been trying to spread similar sentiments around our office with a bit of success. It really comes down to listening and truly understanding what they are saying before you assume you know what they are saying and what their intentions are. Asking a confirming question about their concern or idea will usually clarify things and get you on the same page. Often times I find their goal is very similar to mine own, and they are just approaching it differently or even just wording it differently that it seemed we were at odds. I have even offered myself to the office as a mediator when conflicts like this occur, and already had a few people take me up on it to decent success.

    • scichelli

      So true. And the mediator role–what a neat idea! Hmm… I wonder if I could do that around here…

  • Well said, and so true. It can be hard to do in the heat of the moment, but I’ve always found that some reflection about the various motivations around the other side(s) of any discussion can clear the way for better understanding. A close corollary to assuming positive intent is to remind yourself that (most of the time, and especially with regard to edicts from upper management) “They’re not doing it TO me”

    • scichelli

      Very good point, “They’re not doing it TO me.” It feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it?

  • yogiaradhye

    This a great post and worthy of a conversation in the companies. People getting threatened as if you are after their job (even though the intention is clearly to help the project move along) is a real thing. It may seem super illogical to a developer mind but everyone is not a developer and they tend to see things little differently. I
    also think the mentality of “whose job it is”, gets highly encouraged in larger
    bureaucratic structures. People don’t want their empires threatened much less
    jobs. In all of this, if everyone decides to trust in positive intentions of one another, we will be able to get back to our common original goal of delivering software.

    I can shed some light on the doubt thing. In India, people often literally translate everything from native language to another to make things easier. Asking a doubt is a perfect example of such a literal translation. A casual teacher-student interaction usually happens in native language. For me, it was in Marathi
    (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marathi_language ). Teacher would say “shanka
    vichara” which literally translates to ask a doubt but correct one is ask a
    question. The Google translate is smart enough to do that. It got the tense
    wrong but is very close (http://imgur.com/6bMDDN1 ). I can see that being a second nature of someone. On top of it, India uses UK English which has its differences with US English. When I did my masters here, they made us aware of things like these and gave some training to avoid miscommunication. I wonder if companies do that. I was involved in “asking a doubt” conversation very recently. Again, a very nice post!

    • scichelli

      “Whose job it is,” yes, I’ve seen that, too. Also, thanks for sharing your own experiences with the language differences. :)

  • Fernando Zamora

    Great post. Great advice. I will try to do more of that. Thanks for sharing.

    • scichelli

      Thanks for taking the time to say so. :)