Assume best intent and improve your working relationships

It’s easy to judge someone else for their actions in the face of change, failure, or general chaos. Yet, it’s also easy to cut ourselves slack when we’re faced with that same situation. But that double standard creates more and more tension. Our best practice––assume best intent. 

Here’s what that looks like…

Tim and Lila are collaborating on a project where Tim is the subject matter expert delivering the information. Lila is the project manager. They have a deadline at ten in the morning where they’re going to present to a key stakeholder. Tim is fifteen minutes late to the meeting.

Scenario A: 

Lila panics and gets upset. She’s trying to keep her cool in front of the stakeholder while getting ahold of Tim. Tim eventually arrives slightly disheveled, he apologizes, and the presentation starts. Lila stays in a heightened furious state, assuming Tim is unreliable. After the meeting ends, she gets upset with Tim and yells at him. All of his explanations—that he was up all night working on a project, had urgent asks from other teams—feel like excuses to Lila. Their working relationship is damaged.

Does this sound familiar? Maybe in your world, Lila would have said nothing and started to freeze Tim out, take his responsibilities away, and then air her frustration to their colleagues, or—even worse—go to his manager. These actions, yelling included, keep Lila upset and hurt their working relationship. 

But what if Lila assumed best intent?

Scenario B:

Lila panics that Tim is late. First, she’s upset. But then she considers the possibility that he may have had an urgent request, lost track of time, or gotten in an accident. She does her best to keep her cool and refocus her attention on the stakeholder. Tim eventually arrives slightly disheveled, he apologizes, and the presentation starts. Lila, opting to assume that Tim didn’t arrive late on purpose, notices that he’s disheveled. After the meeting ends, she checks in on him and asks what happened. Tim shares that he was up all night working on their presentation as he got urgent requests all week from another team. He accidentally overslept and was late. He sincerely apologizes. Lila asks how they can help manage his workload so that this doesn’t happen again and he can get proper rest. They set up time later in the week to work on it. Tim sees Lila as a trusted coworker and they find a better way to work together. 

Assuming best intent takes the emotion out of it.

It’s easy to operate as if everything that happens is an affront to you personally. Like if someone misses a note in your email it’s because they don’t care enough to read what you send them. Or maybe, just maybe, they miss the note in your email because they’re trying to respond to forty other emails in thirty minutes.

Our perception of reality is distorted. We work better together when we remember that we’re all humans who have individual struggles. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Now, this doesn’t apply in every instance. Sometimes people truly aren’t holding up their end of the bargain. In that instance, give them feedback. 

Three prompts to help assume best intent

1. Be honest with yourself: Which coworker are you frustrated with and why? 

2. Check your assumptions: Why might they have said or done what they did? 

  • What’s their current workload?
  • What was going on that day or week?
  • How do they typically operate?
  • What do you know about what’s happening in their personal life? 

3. Give grace: How could you respond or react differently?

  • Would a check-in be helpful? 
  • Do you need to realign expectations? 
  • Does this person know they’re coming across this way? Would feedback be helpful in this instance?

4. Act accordingly: Don’t let things fester. If you need to express frustration, have a constructive conversation. If you need to check in, do it. If you’re ready to move on, truly let it go.

No one’s perfect. We’re going to mess up.

We’re going to get angry or upset. And at the same time, we all have to be professional and productive at work. Use these examples and prompts to adjust your mindset and assume best intent. You’ll improve your working relationships, the quality of your work, and your overall mindset toward work (that thing you do for eight hours or more a day). 

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