Updated Jun 4, 2022 - Economy & Business

Simplest workplace principle: Assume positive intent

Illustration of a coffee mug with the Axios logo with steam forming a thought bubble
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There is a simple workplace principle at Axios that increasingly spills helpfully into my personal life: Always assume positive intent.

Why it matters: So much misunderstanding, tension and turmoil flows from thinking the other person is a dope, dishonest or out to get you. So stop assuming the worst.

  • It's shocking how often the explanation is so much simpler and more benign.

The big picture: Dig deep enough into rotten relationships or business cultures, and you often find bad assumptions in the roots. Telltale signs are suspicion, backbiting or score-settling.

  • The big caveat: Yes, some people actually are rotten, or dishonest, or truly out to get you. You shouldn't ignore patterns of toxic behavior. But most people are simply stressed, or clumsy with their words, or innocently screwing up.

Here are a few ways to think about shifting to an assumption of positive intent:

1) Ask, don’t think. Most of life’s problems can be solved instantly if you calmly and clearly ask someone who offended or irritated you what they intended to do or say. Don’t ask in a condescending or aggressive way.

  • Then listen.
  • Do this one thing in person and you'll ease lots of tension.

2) Talk, don’t text. Typing words is a terrible way to capture the nuance of human emotion. You cannot resolve tension at work or in your personal life on Twitter or in texts. Pick up the phone or go old-school and actually talk to a person, in person.

3) Don’t talk crap. At Axios, we make it super-clear that we're intolerant of anyone talking about colleagues behind their backs. It’s a fireable offense. You're expected to take your grievances directly to the person, honestly and respectfully.

  • The only thing worse than assuming negative intent is gossiping about it and spreading the problem. That's how Small Things become Big Things.
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