API – Assume Positive Intent

Our work days seem to involve more and more software applications. We’re constantly logging in to one application or another in order to function. Whether it’s an organizational chat application, time logging, or applications associated with vendors, our work days are consumed with computers. Not only are we constantly jumping from application to application within our work, many of us our tasked with evaluating the myriad of options available that we’re missing out on. Either there’s technology that we need to get to cover one more part of our organization’s playing field or we need to replace something we’re using that’s now antiquated. In the search for the latest and greatest technology, one thing we’re asking about applications is whether they come with an API. We may not know what it stands for. We may not even know what it is other than some kind of connection between more than one application. Ensuring that whatever software we’re consuming has an API seems to be near the top of the list of things to consider.

The acronym API refers to an Application Programming Interface. Developers of an application recognize that the adoption of their software may be enhanced where it can be easily used by others. A factor in ease of use is an application’s ability to interact with or connect with other applications. Allowing users to easily transfer information entered in one application into another application seamlessly without the user having to double enter information is a beneficial step to enhancing software adoption. An API allows developers of other applications to connect their software to that associated with the API. It is a place where developers of multiple applications can connect to a single one under controlled circumstances. This is useful and valuable, but the real API we need in our workplaces is less this one of technology and more of a leadership technique known by the same acronym. This API is Assume Positive Intent.

Assuming Positive Intent may be one of the most difficult leadership tasks we can take on. For many of us it runs counter to our nature. Sure, we all make mistakes. Our instant interpretation when we make a boo boo may be that it is the result of some force outside of our control. It wasn’t my fault, the coffee cup fell off the table and shattered on the floor. Who was the idiot that decided the floor for the office kitchen should be concrete? It’s not my fault the cup broke, gravity did it. However, if someone else makes a similar mistake, then they were clearly the problem. Nice mess. Dummy can’t even keep his mug on the table. Good thing he’s not in charge of anything important. The tendency to see our flaws as outside our control and those of others as their responsibility may be hard wired into us by nature. There may be an evolutionary benefit to preserving our self-esteem by blaming. It’s no fun to look in and see our own flaws or failing. If we can attribute problems to an external cause, we benefit from a false peace of mind.

Nonetheless, problems are inevitable. They’re everywhere. Just as soon as you’ve solved one, another one shows up on your doorstep. On some level we recognize and accept this reality, yet we still default to viewing problems in a negative light. On some level we feel that our lives would be better if problem free. Part of the problem of problems is that we allow our ego to be involved. We think having a problem reflects poorly on us. We think if there’s a problem, we somehow caused it or brought it upon us. When we view problems in this light, we’re more likely to hide things or conceal information. We don’t want to reveal the problem to others for fear of how we’ll be perceived. Our ego gets in the way. In its effort to protect itself, our ego looks around to blame someone or something else. In so doing, we’re closing ourselves off to learning and are destined to experience similar problems in the future.

We may also view problems as learning opportunities. Perhaps, we’ve been trained through either school or work that it is when we get the answer wrong or things break that we need to pay attention. Mistakes are what to look for because they offer learning. This may be true, but this is like learning about business by studying only those companies that have gone bankrupt. We’re only seeing a part of the story and it isn’t much fun, engaging, or illuminating. Pointing out what was done wrong does little to draw people in. It closes minds as opposed to opening them. It also increases the chances that problems will be hidden and stuffed in the closet.

Legendary CEO, Alan Mullaly, was known for trying to openly and without emotion address problems head on. He made it a point to emphasize with everyone he could the distinction between having and being a problem. He was famous for noting, “You have a problem. You are not the problem.” This simple, subtle distinction is freeing. Once I know I’m not the problem, I’m less inclined to conceal things. I’m not on trial here. I have a problem, but am not the problem. I have a problem, let me share what I can in order to get help to solve the problem. Mullaly’s approach works to remove our individual egos. We’re working to think of ourselves less and assume all are acting with positive intent.

Leaders would do well to push into their psyche the perspective that everyone is trying to do the best they can with what they have where they are. It is very unlikely that folk are coming in to work with the mindset of intentionally making mayhem. Colleagues mean well. They want to do a good job. Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, offered as a response to the question of what is the most important leadership lesson she had ever learned, “Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. When you follow this advice, your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different.” Where we start with the assumption of positive intent, it becomes easier to assess situations from the lens of responsibility instead of fault. Instead of lashing out, assigning blame, and focusing on whose fault it is, we can look for responsibility. Can we evaluate more common explanations for poor performance which could include that staff aren’t provided the correct training, tools, or direction.

Assuming Positive Intent isn’t about being Pollyanna. It’s not a naïve or blind trust in letting people do whatever they want. It’s working with the assumption that we’re on the same team trying to head in the same direction. Where we assume positive intent, we’re shifting our mindset to solve problems. We begin to search for solutions instead of blurting blame we’re likely to regret. If we’re mired in seeing the negative we’ve given up our ability to influence the situation. We’re defining ourselves as victims and someone else as a villain. This is the opposite of empowering. We’re weaker when we do this. We’re also more likely to shut ourselves out from other’s input and assistance. We’re not getting the best from our team when we default to a negative perspective.

The idea of assuming positive intent is an extension of the idea of things gone right introduced in an earlier article. We want to work to understand the problem, not blame the person. Yes, there may be the odd bad apple that takes advantage of things. However, they will make themselves known soon enough. We’re not giving the benefit of the doubt forever no matter what. We’re trying to see the best in other’s intentions and be open to seeing what obstacles may be getting in the way of others. Where we trust that we’re each doing our best to do our part we’re contributing to a culture of both commitment and openness. Colleagues who feel safe are more likely to bring problems forward proactively instead of sweeping things under the rug. This is a great benefit of assuming positive intent.

A separate benefit of assuming positive intent is a greater willingness to offer ideas. Creative contributions will go up where people feel safe. If employees know that their leaders think well of them, they are more likely to make suggestions for improvement and offer creative solutions. This is the opposite approach then that taken where one is worried about being shot as a messenger. In too many organizations employees sit on their hands not contributing their expertise as they fear getting shot down.

Business authors Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick offer in their book, Leading with Gratitude, a four step approach to helping reduce the burdens of assuming positive intent in order to capture the benefits. Elton and Gostick recognize we’re not all Mother Teresa’s exhibiting a natural bias to think well of others. As we noted earlier, a negativity bias is natural for many of us. Unfortunately, our media works to reinforce this negative bias. Even if we lean towards the negative end of the temperament spectrum we can get better at assuming positive intent. The first step is to address early communication regarding a problem in as personal a way as possible. Avoiding email or other non-direct communication is recommended. If you can’t visit them personally, reach out via phone. Your tone and willingness to try to understand their context and perspective can best be communicated directly. Avoid reacting based on hearsay. Go to the horse’s mouth and collect as much information as possible. From here seek understanding not action. You’re not trying to jump in and solve the situation. We’re trying to learn more about what has transpired. Concurrent with seeking understanding is the third step which is taking a longer term view. We’re less concerned with just this specific circumstance. We’re as interested in how we will adjust and adapt to manage future situations. If we can shift our sights to how we’re trying to improve understanding in order to make things better for the future, we’re further depersonalizing and encouraging a constructive conversation. We’re not looking to punish or assign blame. Instead, we’re interested in improving tomorrow. The final step is similar to the first in that we’re working to keep our communication focused on constructively managing the situation. It’s important to watch for tone, body language, or other things that can make it seem that we’re attacking the individual.

Assuming Positive Intent may not be our default setting, but working to implement the advice from Leading with Gratitude will become our personal API to facilitate better interactions amongst colleagues.