By Don Kennedy, Managing Partner
How do things change for you personally and professionally if you believe the person sitting across from me has your best interests at heart?
I learned a really valuable lesson a few years ago. Working for a public company in a hyper competitive industry, we were in a position where we had made a number of simultaneous acquisitions in order to bolster our product suite. Buying companies is a complicated financial process, but the real complexity comes after the ink dries. Bringing together teams of people with potentially different corporate cultures and overlapping responsibilities can create some incredibly messy organizational dynamics, and in our case, that’s what happened. A lack of alignment over a go forward strategy in some critical areas created a lack of trust and tribal behavior that was toxic. It wasn’t sustainable or productive, so we did what all companies do in times of strain and strife. We had an offsite.
The offsite had it all. Chairs in a circle? Check. Colored markers and flip charts? You bet. Cookies? Why yes. It also had a room full of people who didn’t see eye to eye and third-party facilitators who had their work cut out for them. Having been through many off-sites before, I was skeptical of the desired outcome. I was preoccupied with things that needed to get done to hit our numbers, and my body language could not have been great as things kicked off. Over the course of the next two days it became clear to me that my skepticism and preoccupation were at the root of the problem, and the same could be said for many of my peers. We were wrapped up in our motivations, and confused hyper protection of those in our individual org silos with doing the right thing for the company and our customer base. We were asked in pre-interviews by the facilitators to share specific feedback about the current state of the state and our thoughts on our team dynamics. Little did we know that the session would start with an unvarnished and unedited reading of that feedback in front of the entire room (with attribution). Nothing like ripping off the Band-Aid. As awkward (and more than a little painful) as it was to hear that feedback in that setting, it set the tone for transparency, and made for a very productive few days. We worked over the session to establish a set of Operating Principles that we would commit to in order to be better leaders and teammates. There were eight of them in total, but the one at the top of the list had a huge impact on me personally. “Assume Positive Intent”.
How do dynamics change for someone if they enter a conversation believing that the person sitting across from them (or on the phone) has their best interest at heart? Is there a greater likelihood for a success if you don’t think someone is trying to pull something over on you? This isn’t to say that someone should go through life with a high level of naiveté or blissful ignorance, as earning and maintaining trust is a two-way process that takes time. That being said, mutual trust is never earned without Assuming Positive Intent. When we sat in our offsite, it forced me to look inward and think about some changes I needed to make. I think it had the same impact on others. It’s not to say that our organizational dynamics were magically fixed, but at least the elephant in the room was called out, and we could start to try to make things better.
I’ve thought a lot about Assuming Positive Intent over the past eighteen months. You can’t turn on cable news or log on to social media without seeing the very antithesis of this practice. Its toxic, and its everywhere. The airwaves and interwebs are dominated by conspiracy theories, deflection, and the assumption of negative intent across the board. It’s toxic and counterproductive. I also see it manifest itself on a daily basis as friends and former colleagues work through complex M&A dynamics, and pause for thought on how they want to manage their careers. It’s not hard to fall into the trap of assuming negative intent.
As an executive recruiter, I’m operating in a space where the Assumption of Positive Intent means a lot. We’ve all been called upon by recruiters over the years who come across as pushy and unprepared. Like any profession, negative perceptions are driven by the lower end performers, and executive search is no different. As I said earlier, trust is earned, and it’s on me to do the homework and prep work needed to succeed for our clients and candidates. That being said, it’s amazing to see the results driven when two parties enter into a conversation and agreement aligned in the idea that they have one another’s best interests at heart.
I haven’t been perfect in applying this principle 24/7 over the past few years. There are certainly days when I let biases and skepticism creep into my head. However, I have noticed a direct correlation between successful (happy) people and their ability to “Assume Positive Intent”. As a recruiter, when I talk to CXO candidates with this mindset, they are engaging, inquisitive, and in high demand. When I talk to executives that practice this trait, they are typically leading successful teams that attract top talent in high volume. It’s not a coincidence. When you combine team members and leaders who both successfully “Assume Positive Intent” simultaneously, you build special organizations and create vastly higher levels of career and personal satisfaction.