What happens when we just assume positive intent?

Here's a New Year's resolution that's perfect for open leaders everywhere.
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I never make New Year's resolutions. I've never understood the concept, never felt motivated to change with the calendar, and always been cynical of the effectiveness of "resolving" to change.

Instead, I like to continually examine my habits and think about how I can improve on a more frequent basis. That said, 2016 has been an interesting year, and the beginning of 2017 I think is a good opportunity to think about how to be intentional about my behavior in all aspects of my life.

So here's my 2017 open organization resolution: When it comes to leading in an open organization, I want to be more intentional about understanding and considering my own motivations and the motivations of others, and encouraging my colleagues to do the same.

Becoming villains

As someone who leads a large team, I encourage people throughout the group to approach me with any concerns or questions they have. I like hearing the perspectives of people in all roles, levels, and geographies (our team is spread across four continents). I like this not only because it helps me understand how people are feeling and what people are thinking, but also because it directly influences decisions I make and actions I take as a leader. I also like to help people solve problems.

Recently, a team member, (I'll call him "John"), approached me about a conflict he was observing. When this happens, it's hard not to be sucked in by the details ("Bob did this thing, then Jane said this thing . . . "). In this case, John had put much thought into the situation, and he offered a very considered summary of what was happening and why he was concerned about it. John was also clear in his motivations for telling me about the problem: He was worried about a particular team member and wanted that person to be supported and successful.

Our organization is made up of many smaller teams, most of which have members in different parts of the world. It's not uncommon for a team of five to have members in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. The gist of the conflict John described was this: A team member in one region, we'll call him Gargamel, was acting nefariously. The way John presented the information seemed completely plausible, and my instinct to solve the problem immediately kicked in: I need to talk to Gargamel's boss and sort out what's going on.

So I did. It turns out Gargamel had his own version of what was happening: Another team member in a different region, we'll call him Dr. Claw, was actually doing the thing John thought Gargamel was doing, and Gargamel was merely responding to Dr. Claw's nefarious behavior.

At this point, I had to laugh at the irony of the situation. This whole conflict was the result of people reacting defensively to actions from their teammates that they misunderstood. Instead of talking to each other about it, they behaved more like kids on a middle school playground than adults in an office.

But to the people on the team, there was nothing funny about it. The conflict was very real, and it was causing serious frustration, resentment, and unhappiness. And, of course, I suspect it was also affecting the quality of the work they were all doing.

I began to realize that nobody--including myself--was really taking the time to understand the motivations of their colleagues. When John presented the situation to me, he thought he understood Gargamel's motivations, and I didn't question that understanding. Similarly, Gargamel thought he understood Dr. Claw's motivations and neither he nor his manager questioned that understanding. But I had met both Gargamel and Dr. Claw. They are both very nice, generous people who don't resemble their cartoon villain namesakes in the slightest.

What was going on here?

Assuming positive intent

A few factors were at play.

Due to tight deadlines and significant technical challenges, this was a high stress environment. Team members were scattered across the world, had different cultural backgrounds and had never met in person. And customer satisfaction issues were adding fuel to the fire. It seemed to me that, under these conditions, people had developed a pattern of blame rather than a pattern of cooperation. Rather than saying, "This is tough situation, how do we make it better together?" people were saying, "This is tough situation because so-and-so is doing such-and-such."

In some cases, simply getting everyone in the room (physically or virtually) and openly talking through the problem is all it takes. But some situations have more deeply rooted issues of trust and misunderstanding that prevent an easy reconciliation. Turning to the question of motivation can help get over some of those barriers.

The starting point for this is to assume that everyone has positive intent.

When first discussing the situation with John I could have asked some questions about motivations:

  • Do you think Gargamel has the same goals as the rest of the team?
  • Assuming we all want to create a better product for our customers, what do you think might be motivating Gargamel to do these things?
  • I wonder what the situation might look like from Gargamel's perspective. Does he see something we don't see?
  • Has anybody talked to Gargamel about the impact that his actions are having?
  • Why did I jump to talking to Gargamel's boss? What was I hoping to achieve by doing that?

Had I, or John, or other team members involved stopped to ask these questions, assuming that our colleagues had positive intent, the team may have been able to avoid the conflict and frustration that had been mounting.

Thus my resolution for 2017: By taking a moment to pause before jumping to conclusions or actions, and using that time to ask questions about the situation, I hope to be more effective in bringing people together in cooperation to achieve goals, rather than blaming each other for perceived problems.

Disclaimer: As is the case with most of my articles on Opensource.com, the situation I describe here is a simplification of events that were much more nuanced in real life.

Picture of Sam in his home office smiling at the camera. Sam is a white man. He has long curly brown hair and is wearing a dark green zip up fleece hoody.
I lead a team in Red Hat focused on providing context, knowledge, connection and alignment to our Product and Technologies employees, as well as working to ensure they have an inclusive, equitable, and safe environment to work and grow in. I am a late-diagnosed autistic person and I co-chair Red Hat's neurodiversity employee resource group.

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