Thinking the Best of Each Other at Work

Key ways to avoid misunderstandings that lead to assumptions of bad intent among colleagues.

When a colleague upsets you, do you assume that’s what they wanted? I have to admit I often make that assumption. It’s not unusual to assume the worst of people, so innocent misunderstandings quickly get overblown into long-term damage to a work relationship.

How do you create a culture in which employees think the best of one another rather than the worst? I found a piece in Axios by its co-founder and CEO, Jim VandeHei, which speaks to my tendency to assume dark intentions of others.

VandeHei offers a few key ways to avoid misunderstandings that lead to assumptions of bad intent.

I have a tendency to over-reflect, turning nearly every encounter over in my mind so many times that even minor interactions are remembered for years. This tendency is great for building an impressive memory, but not so great for human relationships. The more I reflect on an interaction or communication, the more chance there is that I will see negativity that may not actually be there. To avoid doing this, VandeHei suggest that you “ask, don’t think.” Instead of turning over an interaction in my mind endlessly, the better approach would be for me to pick up the phone and say something like, “Hi, Judy, how are you? I wanted to touch base with you about that e-mail exchange we had yesterday. I wanted to make sure I understood you correctly.”

I may be growing as a person because, even before I read VandeHei’s advice, I reached out to a person I had been struggling with online to establish what was really happening. I was shocked when a kind-sounding, upbeat voice answered the phone, rather than the monster in a cave I was expecting. I was able to express to her that I didn’t understand her directions. I was able to find a solution to a problem we had been going back and forth about for days. If she had bad intentions, they weren’t apparent during that phone call.

Sometimes the feelings of others can impact an employee to assume the worst of another person. For example, I have had the experience of thinking a person was difficult, and then having my already-negative thoughts of that person compounded by the negative perceptions of a colleague. I went from thinking a person was just difficult by nature to assuming that person wanted to sabotage a project. A culture in which positive intent is the default assumption would have led me to say, “Tom, I definitely can see why you would think that. I’m not sure myself at this point. All I know is this is a hard assignment, and that Phil is challenging to work with. I’m thinking, until I learn different, that this is just his nature. He approaches work much differently than we do. Maybe we can set up a meeting together with him to talk it out.”

VandeHei recommends talking instead of texting, and that would seem to apply to e-mail, too. I’m a great lover of the written word, and would almost always rather have a typed conversation than an audio one over the phone, via video, or in-person. With my high volume of work, I wouldn’t be able to do my job without the ability to write rather than talk; however, in conflict resolution, the written word is often sub-par to talking. It’s too easy for an innocent response to be misinterpreted without hearing the tone of a person’s voice expressing it.

One time, when a friend and I were at a party at a large club, a person we were meeting there texted that she “was where the music is playing” when my friend texted to ask where she was. Somehow my friend initially interpreted that seemingly harmless response to be negative or critical, as if to say, “I’m where the music is playing. I don’t know where you are.” Or: “I’m in the place where anybody who wants to have fun is at this party. I don’t know where you are.” The person we were meeting hadn’t actually said any of that, of course. My friend was putting a spin of negative intention on an innocent response. Fortunately, within minutes, she laughed at herself, realizing she was being silly.

“Don’t talk crap” about colleagues is another of VandeHei’s suggestions for having a company culture with an assumption of positive intent. That means talking directly to , rather than behind the backs of, colleagues who upset you. For a shy person, this can be hard. It means having an uncomfortable conversation in which you admit to not understanding what a co-worker said or did, or expressing to their face that they did something that was offensive to you or caused you problems. The hardest part about doing this is that not everyone will respond in kind with honesty. I had the experience of forcing myself early in my career to sit down behind a closed door with a person I had negative feelings toward, expressing myself, and then having her obfuscate. She insisted, in so many words, that nothing was wrong between us and that it was all in my imagination. And yet the strain and unfriendliness between us persisted.

You can only meet people halfway, and VandeHei offers the caveat that some people do, in fact, have bad intentions. A culture of positive intent teaches employees to give colleagues the benefit of the doubt by resolving conflict through direct communication. That way, if a problem persists with a colleague, you know you tried your best to fix it, and the Human Resources team you turn the problem over to will know they genuinely have an employee who needs additional training or replacement.

Do you strive for a culture that encourages assumptions of positive intent? How does your organization teach employees to adopt this way of thinking and interacting with colleagues?