Originally published on July 3, 2019 on www.changeleadershipadvisors.com.
Assume Noble Intent. This phrase has been front and center for me over the past several years and has become a mantra of sorts. It’s a way to remember how I want to interact not only with my team members and clients, but with everyone I meet. It gives me a solid foundation for effective interactions during times of change.
What does it mean to assume noble intent? I think it means choosing to believe that another’s behavior and actions come from a place of goodness, high ideals, solid values and strong character.
Assume. You may have heard the children’s joke about assume (it makes an a** out of you and me). Unfortunately, that sentiment is often carried over into our professional and personal relationships as adults. We have a choice each time we interact with another person. Do we assume our interaction will be meaningful, substantive and, even if it’s uncomfortable, at least a small step forward? Or do we assume the interaction comes with an adversarial attitude and a mountain of ill will?
Noble. People ask me why I don’t use the word positive in place of noble. Assuming positive intent seems a bit disingenuous, as though the interaction must be upbeat and affirming when in fact the subject matter isn’t. Noble puts me in the mindset of higher purpose, something bigger than me and meaningful (even if it’s not exactly positive).
Intent. Sometimes it’s hard to look past a person’s words and actions to see their true purpose. We bring our own lens to every interaction based on our history, values, beliefs, hopes, fears, desires and more. These different lenses can create confusion or – at the far end of the continuum – dissension, animosity and division between people. This is especially true when we use our lens to make an evaluation based only on what we see or hear in front of us.
I worked with a colleague who struggled to assume noble intent. Michael liked the idea in theory but couldn’t see how he could apply it when he knew, just KNEW the other person was operating with bad intent. One day Michael forwarded me an email from our business partner, Joan, who questioned our calculations for project status. Joan frequently raised this type of question and Michael took it as a sign of mistrust in what our team was doing. He decided to “take action immediately” by calling her. I wasn’t at all sure how the conversation was going to go.
About an hour later, I received another email from Michael. All it said in the body of the message was “Assume noble intent.” After talking with her, he’d discovered that Joan just hadn’t understood the calculations and was in no way questioning their validity.
Assuming noble intent allows us to come to an interaction openly, willing to try different lenses and see things in a different way. Whether in times of intense disruption or small moments of minor challenge, it’s a helpful reminder that most of us are truly trying to make things a little better, even if we come at it in different ways.
Special thanks to John Sanke and Anne Landrum for insights and editing help on this article.