The Prime Directive and the limits of assuming positive intent

I tackled the notion of assuming positive intent when it comes to conflict. It isn’t as good an idea as you might think.

Here’s the most helpful thing I’ve ever learned by far about conflict: before you have a conversation with someone, make sure you assume positive intent. Read on to discover a technique you can use to apply that idea — if you’re like me, you’ll find it will resolve most conflict before it starts. And, in a fun plot twist, we’ll also cover how this idea shouldn’t be applied at all times because it can harm underrepresented folks if we aren’t careful.

The Prime Directive #

I facilitate a lot of retrospectives at work. If you’re unfamiliar with retrospectives, these are meetings that exist to help a team process how the last few days went. They generally cover what went well, what could be improved, and what was frustrating.

One thing I do before a retrospective with a new team (or team member), we go over The Prime Directive (no, not the Star Trek one). It’s this one from what Norm Kerth:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

Retrospectives need to be a safe space to discuss how the last two weeks were for everyone. After all, you’re talking about things that need improvement and it’s easy for things to get heated. The Prime Directive helps enshrine psychological safety because it helps us frame every event as an opportunity for improvement.

Once you assume positive intent , it’s much easier to defuse tension when it arises. It’s easier because you’re building psychological safety.

The limits of assuming positive intent #

I want to make a distinction that might be not be obvious: you can’t (and shouldn’t) assume positive intent in every scenario. It isn’t a magic wand you wave and resolve all conflict —actions have impact and that impact should be acknowledged. For example, If I step on your foot once, you probably won’t think I did it intentionally. It doesn’t mean you didn’t get hurt.

Similarly, it’s important to not negate the impact of someone’s actions just because they meant well. What I’ve found is that assuming positive intent can disproportionately affect underrepresented folks.

I’ll let Annalee from The Bias explain:

On its face, [assuming positive intent] might not sound like a bad idea. After all, isn’t assuming the best in others generally a good way to go through life? What’s the harm in encouraging that within your community?The harm is that telling people to “assume good intent” is a sign that if they come to you with a concern, you will minimize their feelings, police their reactions, and question their perceptions. It tells marginalized people that you don’t see codes of conduct as tools to address systemic discrimination, but as tools to manage personal conflicts without taking power differences into account. Telling people to “assume good intent” sends a message about whose feelings you plan to center when an issue arises in your community.

Let’s look at a more concrete example #

Take Roz, whose boss regularly praises her appearance. Her boss — we’ll call him Luc — is a successful manager who’s a few generations older. He’s been a little touchy with some of the other women in the office but not her.

Luc regularly praises Roz’s appearance by saying how beautiful she looks or how nice her hair is. One day, she’s in the middle of updating a document and she’s wearing a new top that’s a little revealing. Luc comes in and says how nice that new top is. “What the hell did he mean by that?” Roz asks.

Roz is uncomfortable that her boss says these things to her. She’s not there to be seen, she’s there to work. While she can assume positive intent all day and know that Luc only meant to make her feel better, she still feels objectified.

If she does tell someone, say HR, they could point to their code of conduct and say “see here, it says we assume positive intent. Luc didn’t mean anything by this. Don’t make this into something it isn’t” and send her on her way. That sucks.

She might opt to quash her feelings, suck it up, and keep going, which also sucks. Or she could talk to Luc about it, risk the relationship, and have to do the emotional labor of educating him. This, too, sucks.

What’s the ideal way forward here?

Ideally Luc will come to this realization on his own and not force Roz or the other women in the office to fix it. That shouldn’t be their job. There’s another ideal option: have an ally step in to educate Luc, which takes the effort off of Roz.

Overall #

Assuming positive intent is a game-changer and tools like The Prime Directive help enshrine psychological safety in your workplace. While it does a lot of good, we have to make sure to not blindly apply it and ignore the impact of someone’s actions because it can disproportionately affect underrepresented people.

Try this before your next conversation #

  • Before starting a conversation, remind everyone (including yourself) about The Prime Directive. Do you believe it applies in this situation?
  • Remember the limits of assuming positive intent and don’t ignore the impact

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