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What's wrong with "assume positive intent"
Sometimes intentions are not positive.
I remember the first time I heard the phrase “assume positive intent.”
I was working for a company that had launched a DEI initiative to hire an intern from an underrepresented group. Several employees pointed out that the role’s announcement was problematic, the most glaring issue being that it wasn’t clear if the internship was paid.
The company’s CEO tried to subdue the backlash in a company meeting, clarifying the concerns over the role. She ended with, “I think we all need to remember to assume positive intent.”
I metaphorically nodded my understanding. The role was intended to provide opportunity. So what if the internship description was problematic? It would be addressed and we could all move forward.
Somehow, in the moment, I overlooked feelings I had about a similar phrase I’d heard years before. It was in Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. She wrote:
My life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.
I thought about her words. I tried to think of scenarios with difficult people in my life, and assume that people were “doing their best.” Maybe they were dealing with something that I wasn’t aware of.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that some people are just awful.
Actions can come from ignorance
Sometimes positive intent is rooted in ignorance. “I’m not from an underrepresented group, so I didn’t understand some of the issues around DEI. But that’s ok — I’ll do better next time.”
The problem? There’s no shortage of information about DEI and how to think through DEI initiatives. Whether willful or not, failing to seek out information simply perpetuates the problems. There’s no “positive intent” if the intent to truly address DEI issues never existed in the first place.
I think also about people who use outdated terminology about race or refuse to acknowledge a person’s pronouns. And it’s brushed aside — “they’re from a different generation.” Failure to keep up with changing societal norms is not an excuse.
I also look around at the wreckage from layoffs over the past 18 months or so. I’m immersed in the tech startup world, which is largely funded by venture capitalists. I’ve known more than a few companies that have crashed and burned due to financial mismanagement. The intent might have been there to build a strong company. But lack of management experience led to poor planning and gross overspending.
“Positive intent” still hurt people.
Actions can have ulterior motives
“Assume positive intent” is a form of toxic positivity. Because the people who use the phrase are trying to get you to ignore their own shortcomings.
They’re asking you to ignore your gut when you feel like something isn’t right with the situation. “Assume positive intent” is a great shield for ulterior motives.
I’d like to think that companies that have laid people off didn’t intend to land in a precarious financial situation. But then I read about Microsoft, laying people off while also posting record profits. The only intent there is money, not people.
I originally struggled with Brené Brown’s “assume people are doing their best” comment because I read it at a time when hate was at an all-time high in the U.S. I couldn’t assume people were doing their best as I witnessed open attacks based on BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, immigrant, and other communities.
Or I look at politicians that refuse to address gun violence, even after repeated mass shootings and school shootings. I can’t ascribe any positive intent there.
Perhaps Brown meant us to examine people on an individual level, rather than a societal level. But even when I look at people directly in my orbit, I still see never-ending examples of people with zero positive intent.
I’ve also talked with people who have left truly awful work environments. They say “I felt like I was crazy, that there was something wrong with me.” The company was so good at toxic positivity that the person felt isolated and alone, even with red flags all over the place that things were bad.
The line between optimism and cynicism
I probably sound incredibly cynical. And I’m sure my contempt for companies and individuals that treat people poorly is clear from my other writing in this Substack. I recognize that in myself: it’s the result of being repeatedly screwed over by employers. Even when I was doing my best. Even when I tried really, really hard to assume positive intent.
Overall, you can still be a positive person and have a healthy dose of cynicism. You can find good people while still keeping your guard up. There’s often a huge difference between the intent of people doing the work and the systems of power.
You can default to optimism while keeping in the back of your mind that some people do not have positive intent — even as much as they outwardly like to proclaim that they do.
You can be aware that declaring “positive intent” is a form of toxic positivity.
And if something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut.
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