Assuming positive intent means that you consciously choose to assume that the people you work with have good intentions, that they are operating to the best of their ability, that they are trying.

If you assume negative intent, or at best incompetence, you become angry or scornful. While a small percentage of the time there may be elements of truth to this, how does your becoming irritated or disdainful help? Make no doubt about it, if you feel those emotions they will leak. Maybe not at full strength or all the time but at some level, at some point, they will leak.

If you instead assume positive intent you let the people around you know you believe in them, that you have faith in them, confidence in them. Most people will go the extra mile to avoid letting down someone who believes in them.

Many years ago, Dale Carnegie opined that people are complex, have many sides, and often have multiple motivations for their actions. Carnegie’s advice? “Appeal to the nobler motive.” Assuming positive intent means you are appealing to the nobler side and, more often than not, such an appeal will yield an excellent result.

Listen to Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo: “Whatever anyone says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional (intelligence) quotient goes up… You do not get defensive… You are trying to understand and listen…. If you react from a negative perspective——because you didn’t like the way the other person reacted——then it just becomes two negatives fighting. But when you assume positive intent, I think what happens is the other person says, ‘Hey, wait a minute, maybe I’m wrong reacting the way I do because this person is really making an effort’.”

Assume positive intent, both at work and at home. It works. And you will be more relaxed, happier, and live longer. Three and more for one!

This is a classic from the NSCBlog archive, originally posted June 6, 2008.