The Massive Power of Assuming Positive Intent

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Over the course of my continued leadership development and culture transformation work, I have had ample opportunity to have fun with the participants of my workshops/speeches as we learn from each other. One of my favorite exercises has to do with McGregor’s Theory, which distinguishes two sets of assumptions that leaders can subscribe to: Theory X assumes people are inherently lazy, avoid responsibility, and have to be told what to do, and Theory Y is essentially the opposite and states that people are good and they want to achieve, are dependable, and can self-direct. With a list of the various characteristics under each theory projected on the screen, I ask the audience how many of them know people who fit into the Theory X category, and just about every hand goes up. Then I ask them to raise their hand if they are one of those people, and, of course, hardly any hands ever go up. This happens literally every single time, which means those “bad" people who could really use some teaching and coaching always escape my session and I end up preaching to the choir... or so it seems!

The next question, however, reveals the truth about what is really going on. I ask whether anyone occasionally exhibits the behaviors that are listed under Theory X. Once again a bunch of hands go up. The crowd usually breaks out in laughter and agrees with me when I bring to their attention that the reason they didn’t raise their hand for the previous question is that when they behave that way, they believe it is justified, or even if they know it’s not right, they don’t classify themselves as a Theory X person. I further explain that this is because we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior, a phenomenon known by social psychologists as fundamental attribution error.

The same tendency, to assume the worst about others and absolving ourselves of responsibility, tends to dominate our thoughts in auto-pilot mode. Unless we are intentional about assuming positive intent, we tend to question other people’s intentions, which often leads to a whole different set of attitudes and actions than what is required to create and grow fulfilling relationships and deliver extraordinary results.  It also results in millions of dollars worth of wasted time and effort that go into designing elaborate checks and balance processes for the 5% who would abuse the system, rather than the 95% who wouldn't.  I'd venture a guess that by now you can think of other people who have assumed negative intent on your part, rather than instances when you have done the same to others.  If that is the case, it proves that even the best of us are not immune to the fundamental attribution error.

There are a number of ways in which assuming negative intent sabotages productivity and fulfillment:

  1. It diverts attention away from the mission
    While we are focusing on trying to figure out why others behave the way they do and/or defend ourselves against their assumptions, the real issue that must be addressed in order to achieve our mission remains unresolved and may recur.

  2. It slows down issue resolution
    When we suspect negative intent, we tend to gather allies and ensure we have a strong position, rather than going to the person directly.

  3. It discourages bold moves
    Attacking a person's character and questioning their intentions eventually drives people to play it safe and not play a big game.

  4. It diminishes collaboration
    We tend to perpetuate a silos mentality and strengthen cliques by seeking refuge and understanding in others who we believe would be on our side.

  5. It reduces accountability
    The drama associated with assuming negative intent on other people's part prevents us from seeing and being accountable for our own contributions to the issue.

  6. It damages relationships
    Resolving differences of opinion when everyone trusts each other's intent may involve passionate debate and discussion, but they won't damage relationships. The drama associated with assuming negative intent can cause significant damage in relationships, which will take time to repair.


If you believe in the massive power of assuming positive intent and are interested in harnessing it, it is important to understand the reasons and myths that prevent it from being a more prevalent practice:

Assuming negative intent...

  1. Takes less effort
    It is convenient and easier to shift the blame to someone else, rather than do the hard work to seek to understand and identify the real root cause of the issue.

  2. Lets us off the hook on any contributions we may have made to the issue
    Blaming someone else's intent shifts the attention away from us taking responsibility we might have had for creating the issue.

Assuming positive intent is perceived...

  1. To be naïve, weak, and idealistic
    On the contrary, it takes a great deal of courage to assume positive intent and have the tough conversations to identify the real issues.

  2. To imply that everyone indeed has positive intent
    Not at all! It just means that just because 5% of people have negative intentions, you will not treat the other 95% as if they do as well.


Assuming positive intent requires intentionality to go beyond our auto-pilot mode of judging ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. It keeps the organization focused on the mission, speeds up issue resolution, encourages bold moves, instills a culture of accountability and collaboration, and improves relationships. 

About the Author
Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results.
Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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