The unexpected power of assuming people have good intentions

“When you mess up, I will tell you in a constructive way.”
“When you mess up, I will tell you in a constructive way.”
Image: Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
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Occasionally when I’m walking around my neighborhood, I see someone neglecting to clean up after their dog. It makes me cringe.

My first instinct is to lash out. But if I did that, it likely wouldn’t bring about my desired result: getting the mess cleaned up. I’d probably receive a dirty look, or even be yelled back at. Whatever the outcome, the mess would remain on the ground.

So instead of wondering what kind of a sociopath leaves their dog’s mess on the sidewalk, I do my best to assume that they have good intentions. Maybe the person just forgot a bag. Rather than confronting and criticizing, I offer to help by giving a bag of mine.

It’s sometimes obvious that the individual isn’t grateful for this assistance, but they also don’t decline it, and the desired outcome is achieved.

Unfortunately, dog messes aren’t the only “crap” that needs cleaning in this world. We also need to overhaul the way we treat others and accept differences. And, I’ve found this strategy—assuming good intent, and saying something—works well for that, too.

The value of assuming good intent

There have been and will be many instances in our professional lives where someone makes a statement that doesn’t support inclusion. We could conclude that the person is rude and full of bad intentions. Or, we can flip the narrative and start assuming that it’s possible they didn’t know better.

This is especially true for a company like the one where I work, which has employees coming from more than 40 different countries who have many different backgrounds and experiences. For example, if someone says “sexual preference” instead of “sexual orientation,” it doesn’t automatically mean that they believe it’s a choice.

It could mean that this person really felt that “preference” was the inclusive term. More often than not, for those of us in the Silicon Valley, this is obvious. But, for those outside our bubble, it may be less so. Instead of getting angry and attacking, or withdrawing and avoiding, wouldn’t it be better to inform him or her that there is a better choice of words, and explain why it’s better? That way, they can avoid repeating the mistake in the future.

“When you know better, do better”

It’s not always obvious or easy to determine if someone needs coaching and feedback, or just has bad judgment and divisive opinions. But no matter what, you should speak up to the person who made the mistake. If that doesn’t work, you might also speak up to a manager, company leader, or “people team.” Under no circumstances should you just “let it go.”

Ignoring bad behavior leaves the mess on the ground, where others will step in it and continue to spread it around the company, making it much harder to clean up. So, let’s teach one another and hold each other accountable. In doing so, we are supporting our fellow colleagues.

Barbie Brewer is chief culture officer at Gitlab.