Want to build trusting relationships fast? Start with assuming good intent! According to Stephen M.R. Covey and Greg Link, when people in one part of an organization are asked to interface with another part, they often start with assumptions of negative intent such as:

“Is there a hidden agenda?”

“What is her real motive?”

“Is he trying to position himself or his team to get more, so we’ll get less?”

Sound familiar? At times, I’m sure we’ve all had those assumptions of others that we need to work with. However, in their book Smart Trust, Link and Covey say, “…the best leaders, the best teams, the best companies start from that promise [of assuming good intent] and doing so creates the very behavior they’re seeking.”

Doing otherwise and assuming negative intent can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and create the very behavior that is feared.  Think about it. Our assumptions are pretty powerful and influence how we behave AND the behaviors we elicit from others.

Last year, I had an experience where a partnering organization made an accounting error that negatively impacted the budget of a professional board that I served on. While leaders in the organization did acknowledge the error, they did not offer to remedy it immediately. In fact, they indicated that it would be a hardship to do so. Assuming negative intent could have easily devolved into a very combative situation that could threaten both the partnership and the sustainability of the professional board.

It would have been easy to chalk up the response to irresponsibility, lack of accountability, and numerous other faults we could attribute to the lead manager who did not immediately remedy the accounting error. Instead, I’m glad to say that the board members and I worked hard to assume good intent and offered up several options for resolving the issue. Our display of good will perpetuated a much better response and we were able to arrive at a mutually satisfying resolution. 

Thinking about your own experience, here are some questions from Covey and Link for you to consider:

  • Have you ever assumed negative motives on the part of someone else?
  • Have you ever been surprised to discover that your assumptions might have been wrong?
  • What has been your experience in working with others when people assumed good intent on the part of others? What was your experience when they didn’t?

While it is important to accurately assess situations or relationships where it may be smart not to assume good intent, Covey and Link argue that in most cases, assuming good intent with coworkers, teams, organizations, partners, suppliers, spouses, children and others is a more productive, positive, and prosperous place to start.

Anita Rios

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