Lately, possibly as an outcome of the neuroscience-light infusing our mainstream culture, corporate-speak has started including some disturbing expressions into the jargon. One of the most egregious, “assume positive intent,” has become ubiquitous with both leadership and human resource departments. The underlying notion is that in our interactions with others, we shouldn’t assume negative intentions, only positive ones. But given the difficulties surrounding diversity and inclusion efforts across corporate America, isn’t this notion of assuming intent dangerously ingenuous and possibly conflict-avoidant?
The roots of this notion of assuming intent likely arise from the well-publicized concept of the psychological negativity bias. It’s part of human evolution, this self-protection mechanism in our biology that seeks to identify threat and push it away. While our threat response system is useful in life-or-death situations, it’s not always helpful in our day jobs. How do we learn to circumvent strong emotional protection responses in order to allow us to make better choices in the corporate world? The thought is that if we can scrub the interaction clean of any negative emotions, then we can propel a more positive conversation. This is based on a cognitive bias called the “framing effect” and the psychological technique of “cognitive reframing.”
However, humans’ emotions and their interactions are far more complex and nuanced. While this reframing can be useful, it doesn’t take into account factors such as individuals’ predisposition for positive or negative affect, socio-economic context, how the negativity bias tends to attenuate with age or even the limitations of reframing. Moreover, when speaking to a disenfranchised person or group, ideas like “assume positive intent” can quickly turn into gaslighting and conflict-avoidance, a way to short circuit an important conversation about real inequity that could resolve and prevent a bigger conflict. It’s imprudent to think reframing alone can be used as a shortcut around the critical practice of conflict resolution.
What we really need in our interactions are cognitive placeholders in our conflict resolution playbook. Cues that allow us to stop, evaluate and reconsider the emotional undercurrent in an exchange with another person. Reminders for when it’s time to step back and recalibrate. Maybe the better approach is to assume no intent, but when hearing something that gives rise to concern, be ready for a professionally intimate conversation rooted in authenticity.