Assume positive intentions vs do not assume.

There is a lot I have learned over the last 20 years of my management career. Only a handful of lessons, however, that have matured inside of me enough that I can actually call them game changers. Game being not only the business efficiency, which is so important to me, but more of a personal comfort and sanity of a kind.

Being a leader and a manager, it is extremely hard to always convey the bigger picture and ‘the Why’ of the organization. It has so many negative implications that it requires another article focusing just on this. Here I’d like to stress only the lack of integrity of team members who cannot go in the a right direction, when the direction is not clearly understood or even shown to them.

The common result is that, as managers, we assume that people will do things the way we expect them to be done. Guess what, in many cases, tasks will not be done the way we’ve intended them to be done or quite often will not be done at all. Why? Because we did not specifically tell our employees to do them (or did not tell them how) and with a lack of the bigger picture they could not have figured it out themselves. We have only assumed they will know.

This is not to say that we should be explaining every single task step by step. That is not effective either, but unless you see actions that prove the task is being carried out, it is safer not to assume that it is being understood, accepted or about to be done. This advice is especially useful because it applies not only to your own reports, but also to your bosses, customers, potential leads etc.

Have you ever sent an email to a potential customer and then wrongfully assumed that they have read and understood the message and now are only internally processing the purchase of your product or service? Why assume if you can check? There are tools like Mailtrack that would empower your google based emails with the knowledge of when and how intensively your emails are being read. One less thing to assume and without asking too many questions. Plus, you can get back to the addressee as soon as you see that they’ve opened an email some time later. That’s the moment when this person is thinking of you and that can be a perfect moment for a follow-up call.

How not to assume in team relations? Acknowledgment of your emailed instructions being read would not be enough here. Feedback loop & paraphrasing are the answers. When you’re instructing someone to perform a task, make sure that they’ve received and understood it by asking them to paraphrase. Let them explain to you how they understood the task using their own words. Paraphrasing is a powerful tool that enables you to avoid wrong assumptions and the many consequences of these.

Having said all that, it is wrong to always be saying ‘do not assume’, as there is one important assumption that I would encourage you to do as often as you can. It is about assuming positive intentions. People by nature are good. By definition you are not at war with the world and it is the common interest of many to be good to each other. That should be more than obvious in a team, but is often forgotten, especially by new and inexperienced managers.

I have made the mistake of wrong assumptions so many times in the past, that it now additionally incentivises me to share the approach of assuming positive intentions. There were numerous situations where a task given to the individual was not carried out as I have expected. It is natural to give feedback about it and this is the right thing to do. Key is how you do it in order for it to be effective. It is good to assume from the very beginning that the person had good intentions, but there was something that caused the end result to be wrong. First, it is easier to accept negative feedback when you are hard on a problem and soft on a person. Second, in most cases the task was completed that way and not the other because of a reason. Most of these reasons are through the lack of seeing the bigger picture, a lack of experience or some external indicators that it actually should be performed that way. It was hardly ever a malicious action of an individual who was tasked with that action.

There is one more negative consequence of not assuming positive intentions. It is your authority. There are a few things that hurt employees/partners (and your authority) more than wrong assumptions about their intentions. How would you feel if, once you perform a task, you would be told off by your boss where in fact the task was never explained the way he/she later indicated it was expected to be completed? The authority is not set in stone by the job title or the reporting structure. It is being continuously built by showing expertise in our field and the right approach to the management of teams. That is why it is far better to assume positive intentions.

Last but not least, admitting to an error is never easy. That goes the same for your employees when they do something wrong, as well as to you as a manger when you have to (and should) apologize for assuming wrong. By assuming positive intentions you are also helping yourself. Less stress, better day, happier people around you.

In other words, paraphrasing: do not assume anything but positive intentions.

Have a great day!

Bolesław Drapella – ex CEO of AirHelp Poland, Founder & Mentor at


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