A Case for Not Assuming Positive Intent

21 July 2023

For the longest time, we’ve been taught to “Assume Positive Intent,” a mantra that encourages us to believe others act in good faith and to suppress the reflexivity of judgment of others when they act in a way that is counter to our own behaviors or values. However, while this is arguably good advice, when blindly applied, this concept can lead to potential downsides.

Simply ssuming positive intent can prevent us from holding individuals accountable for their harmful actions or words, inadvertently perpetuating harmful patterns and stymying personal and organizational growth. It can also reinforce harmful biases and stereotypes, as it can be used as an excuse to ignore someone’s actions based on their background or identity. Furthermore, assuming positive intent bypasses the opportunity to address systemic issues that foster negative behaviors. For example, when an employee repeatedly disregards colleagues' input, the easy route might be to assume they're having a bad day. Yet, perhaps they lack knowledge on effective team collaboration or our organizational culture is inadvertently promoting individual over team success.

This raises a critical question: how can one accurately discern someone’s intent? Intentions refer to the goals or desires that a person has in mind when they act. Since these are personal and often invisible to outsiders, it’s nearly impossible to determine without making assumptions.

So, as leaders responsible for shaping behavior, how can we address this challenge? First, we must recognize that there are currently internal forces, deliberate or not, within an organization that incentivize or disincentivize certain behavior; your job is to identify and evaluate what those are and why they exist. Next, to close the gap between where your organization is and where you want it to be, the answer lies in defining clear objectives and motivators — very familiar topics for leaders — and tying these to carefully structured incentives and the systems that reinforce them.

We often associate incentives with financial rewards. However, incentives can be divided into five broad categories to drive and redirect human behavior:

  1. Financial Incentives include rewards such as bonuses and pay raises, but can also extend to shared success with the company as a whole (such as through stock options and equity) and future investment (such as 401k matching). As organizational leaders, there are well-established systems that can be constructed to make disbursement of these financial rewards as equitable as possible, such as salary bands, performance based compensation, established bonus targets, standard equity awards and refreshes, standardized promotion processes, and more. 

  2. Social Incentives include things like recognition, praise, or social/professional status. Simple recognitions, such as in staff meetings or All Hands, can be incredibly motivating for individuals. Of course, these do not necessarily need to come from leadership or managers either; ceremonies and forums can also be designed where peers praise and recognize each other, fostering trust and camaraderie. While there’s also a Financial component to it, accounting an individual’s promotion into a new level or new job can also serve as a Social Incentive.

  3. Psychological Incentives include a sense of accomplishment, personal growth, or self-esteem — a very intrinsic category of incentives that is much more individual than organizational in nature. However, Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, distills this down into three primary motivators: Autonomy (the desire to be self-directed and have control over their own life), Mastery (the desire to develop expertise and continuously improve in areas that are important), and Purpose (connecting to a cause larger than oneself or feeling that they are making a difference or contributing to something meaningful). Despite these motivators being deeply personal, leaders can put together structures and systems to allow people to feel fulfilled such as self-organizing teams, mentorship programs, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs, and well-defined company mission and goals.

  4. Physical Incentives, such as tangible awards or prizes can serve a similar function to both Financial Incentives and Social Incentives. These have the ability to be more personalized and contextualized than a purely financial award (such as an engraved trophy or plaque describing the person and the recognition) and have the ability to be shown and shared (such as a special badge on the company intranet or that award sitting on their desk). One example of this type of recognition came after my team had been pulling a series of long days (and, regrettably, nights) pushing towards a major release that would have severe business implications if the date were to slip. The team understood the urgency of the project and were willing to put in the work, but I also realized that this was taking them away from their families. To thank the employees — as well as recognizing the sacrifices this meant their families were making as well — we ordered pizza (whatever their local favorite was) for our team members and their families and had it delivered to their homes.

  5. Punitive Incentives can also be described as counter-incentives which describe punishments that individuals may receive for inappropriate or counterproductive behavior, which must always be fair, consistent, and proportionate to the behavior in question. These types of repercussions can include verbal or written warnings (which clearly explain what the issue is, provide guidance on acceptable behavior, an make clear the consequences of repeated violation), demotions (where an individual is given a lower position with less responsibility and potentially less pay), withheld bonuses or other financial incentives, or termination.

Each type of incentive has different effects depending on the individual and the situation. For example, financial rewards may motivate one employee while another is driven by public recognition or opportunities for personal growth. The effectiveness of different incentives can be gauged using feedback mechanisms and relevant metrics, such as employee satisfaction surveys or turnover rates.

However, care must be taken to strike a balance between positive and punitive incentives to avoid creating a toxic work culture. Punitive measures should be used sparingly and primarily as a deterrent for behavior that directly violates organizational norms and values.

Leaders must also understand that every incentive in place, deliberate or unintentional, has a cultural implication. Every action rewarded or punished implicitly communicates what is valued within the organization, shaping its culture. Therefore, a conscious and holistic approach to incentives is necessary to drive desirable behavior and cultivate a healthy work culture.

To wrap up, I’ll leave you with a few quotes:

“Your culture is the behaviors you reward and punish”

This quote (which has been paraphrased so much it’s hard to actually attribute to a single individual) takes these structures (and the desired effects) just described and further extrapolates how that is the foundation of culture building. In the absence of deliberate strategy, culture is formed based off of the organic actions and power dynamic inherent in the group of people. Purposeful steering of behavior through incentives (or disincentives) defines the culture we desire.

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

This quote, also known as “Hanlon’s Razor” is applicable here, although I do take issue with the term “stupidity” (which feels like a lazy label). I would personally substitute that for “ignorance” and also go so far as to say that if people lack context and direction in what they should be doing, that falls to us, as leaders, to ensure that we are bringing clarity and alignment to everyone in the organization. 

Overall, while assuming positive intent has its place and is sound advice, we as leaders should focus more on creating clear, effective incentive systems that align with our organizational goals and culture, encouraging the behaviors we want to see and discouraging those we don't.

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