Assume Honorable Intent

I received an interesting request from one of my clients. She asked if I could do a session with the leaders in her organization on “assuming honorable intent.” Several years ago, I’d done a similar session with their senior leadership team designed improve the working relationships among the members. She told me it had really helped and she wanted to extend that perspective throughout the organization. She noted that there was a natural division between the senior leaders and the next level of leadership that created a lot of room for assumptions, one of which was that the senior leaders were “out to get” the junior leaders. She thought it would be a good time to have this session, as the organization is in the midst of significant and unanticipated change. 

The same day, another client shared a situation she was facing. One of her senior staff had just come to her with a serious problem that could prove disastrous for the organization, a problem that has been in the works for some time and which was squarely within his scope of responsibility.  “What was he thinking?” she asked. After talking for a while, we came around to “What was he thinking?”­– a shift from blaming to mild curiosity.  From that conversation, some important insights emerged that may help my client address this crisis and strengthen her leadership capacity. If we’d stayed in blaming and judgment mode, those insights would not have surfaced.

Assuming honorable intent is challenging in the best of times and even more difficult in the midst of crisis and significant change. At the same time, that’s when it is most important to apply one’s energy to creating shared vision, building strong relationships, and taking personal responsibility to deliver on one’s commitments. Assuming honorable intent reduces the likelihood of mistrust, conflict, cliquishness and “CYA” behavior that is so easy to fall into when the going gets tough.

Although there are tools and techniques that can remind us to assume honorable intent, it really is more of an attitude and a conscious choice. When I find myself slipping into mistrust and suspiciousness I bring myself back to neutral by asking, “Why would a reasonable person behave this way?”