Thursday, July 10, 2008

Assuming Positive Intent

Earlier this year, Fortune magazine featured 25 leading public figures from all walks of life, sharing "The Best Advice I've Ever Got". Frankly, not all of the advice was particularly inspiring or even interesting, but one did catch my attention.

Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi Co., shared advice she received from her father - "assume positive intent" in your interaction with others, especially when they don't agree with you. Here's an excerpt -

My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different...In business, sometimes in the heat of the moment, people say things. You can either misconstrue what they're saying and assume they are trying to put you down, or you can say, "Wait a minute. Let me really get behind what they are saying to understand whether they're reacting because they're hurt, upset, confused, or they don't understand what it is I've asked them to do."

Seems like good advice, doesn't it?

I've also heard this principle phrased differently as the "assumption of goodwill". Regardless of what you choose to call it, I've found this to be a helpful practice in business/work interactions, especially in situations where there is great opportunity for misunderstanding. If I'm tempted to react negatively to something someone has said or done, it's often because I've judged their intentions to be negative, malicious or even hostile. When I make that leap, I've erred. Regardless of their true intentions, I've judged them and started down the slippery road that leads to conflict.

I have no reason to believe that Ms. Nooyi is a Christian but I was just wondering - is there any biblical basis for this "assumption of goodwill" principle or is this just another example of the "power of positive thinking" run amok?

Yet, of all people, shouldn't Christians extend the assumption of goodwill towards others in the workplace? If so, why? Please share your thoughts.


Craver Vii said...

Great advice! It's not that forgivers are a breed of chumps, unaware that people scheme and abuse. But believers have received this incredible gift of grace! God is completely aware of our failings, but in a legal sense, he imputes his own righteousness onto us. Certainly then, on the basis of what we have received from One who is higher than us, we can extend a measure of grace to our equals. I want to say "even when" there is malice, but instead I'll say "especially when" there is malice.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I like this.

I believe we have to treat people first of all as those created in God's image, broken though that image is for all of us. In Jesus, we're being restored, but it's important, I believe, that we approach people first of all as special, because they're created by God in his very image, and God loves them I believe, shown in God becoming human and reconciling the world to himself, in Christ.

So to assume good intent, and hope for the best in all interactions, is good.

Of course we must have eyes and ears open, and not be naive. Yet, like Craver says, we need to extend grace, when people are amiss, knowing it could possibly be ourselves, next time around. And the example of the lady in this post is good.

I think this goes for evangelism as well. We start out with the specialness of humanity in Genesis 1 and 2 before we get to the fall and sinfulness of humanity, so that they're missing the high calling which though broken, is inherent in them as humans. Made for fellowship with God and with each other, in special tasks to do in this world. Though of course by common grace we can enjoy much good from humanity, and others, even with them not knowing the Lord. So they need to know the true purpose for their existence and therefore, what really should make them tick in relation to God, others, themselves and creation.

I had to throw that theologizing in and thanks ahead of time for your forgiveness.

But I really like the point of this post! We Christians should look at that first in others, instead of accentuating in our minds that they are sinners. We need to see that they are special to God and to us.

Chris Larson said...

That's a very good encouragement. I've also heard it termed "judgment of charity". said...

yes yes yes yes.


I've thought along these lines for years but haven't thought of such a nice way to say it. Benefit of the doubt my father used to say.

Real Live Preacher said...

oops, that was me with the yes yes yes comment above.

Every Square Inch said...

craver - yes, we should grant the benefit of positive favor upon others since we've richly received it ourselves.

Ted - thanks for your thoughts. I do firmly uphold the doctrine of sin and total depravity but we are not defined exclusively or even primarily by that doctrine

Every Square Inch said...

chris - thanks for stopping by with a comment. Yes, I like that "judgment of charity" or as Ken Sande (Peacemaker) calls it "charitable judgments".

RLP - thanks for your thoughts. Extending "benefit of the doubt" is a phrase commonly used. Isn't it strange how sometimes a new way of saying an old practice frees us up to consider it anew?

Anonymous said...

I'd always read 1-Cor-13 as saying somthing similar - always seeing the best in others.

Verse 7 reads:
'It [Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres'

Great post. Thanks.

Every Square Inch said...


Thanks for commenting from the land Down Under. Yes, assuming the best, believing the best about others would fall under the 1 Cor 13 "umbrella", wouldn't it?

Tanya said...

You're right: just changing the phrasing can make a big difference. I've always refered to this as giving "the benefit of doubt" but that wording is much more negative than "assuming positive intent." I like this. It's fresh and instills the message in the positive inflection of words.

Every Square Inch said...


Thanks for stopping by to share your thoughts. I too prefer the "assume positive intent" over the "benefit of the doubt" - besides being positive, it's also more active in its connotation.

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