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When in Doubt, Assume Positive Intent

Doing so can provide a constructive path out of a tangled disagreement.

Key points

  • Disputes between colleagues don't always have clear, obvious answers.
  • When the real facts of a dispute can't be ascertained, it can be helpful to assume the positive intentions of both sides and just move forward.
  • This approach can be used to moderate disputes beyond business settings.
Direct Media/StockSnapio
Source: Direct Media/StockSnapio

If there's one thing I learned in a quarter-century of management, it's that there are ample gray areas in human behavior and that resolving employee disputes may not always have clear right-or-wrong solutions.

When two people have different versions of the same event, it can be hard to know whom to believe. One such circumstance always comes back to me. It happened many years ago, and it's a measure of the forgettable nature of the conflict that I no longer even recall what the dispute was about, but I definitely recall the resolution. Two talented young executives had vastly different accounts of the same event; it was a "he said/she said" moment, though in a business not romantic context. Neither would budge from their positions, and it seemed likely we'd never get to the truth of the matter.

The path forward

At this point, the manager of one of the individuals (I was managing the other) looked at me after an unsatisfactory meeting and said, "Well, here's something I learned from an excellent manager I once worked for. He used to say, 'When in doubt, assume positive intent.'"

And just like that, we had a path forward. I had great respect for my counterpart's business acumen and judgment, and immediately felt this was a workable insight. She and I agreed we might never know the actual facts of the matter; quite likely there were elements of truth in both employees' stories. We agreed to closely monitor their actions and relationship going forward — and decided to give them both the benefit of the doubt and close the chapter.

So we did, with the result being that we were able to put the conflict behind us and move constructively forward. In fact, their interpersonal problems didn't recur. The wheels of business kept turning; as the saying goes, we all lived to fight another day.

Beyond business

Over the years, this general approach has proved useful for me not just in a managerial environment, but in counseling people about differences in all kinds of relationships. Situations easily arise in everyday living in which two people view the same event differently and the truth is by no means obvious. Gray areas abound, memory is imperfect, and we all see things through the lens of our own experience. In such instances, if you can't satisfactorily come to a meeting of the minds about what really transpired, assuming positive intent and agreeing to move on can be a constructive decision.

Is it a perfect outcome? No, but in some instances, it can be a simple, reasonable, workable one — a positive way forward when other ways don't feel at all clear.

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