"Assume positive intent." Why this phrase should be banished from the professional work lexicon
One of the most harmful phrases in the professional work lexicon is “assume positive intent.”
I am convinced it was literally invented to gaslight people of color especially Black women.
I cannot tell you how many times it was used, especially by white female supervisors to try to convince me that something inappropriate, racist, or otherwise problematic in the workplace should be ignored, covered up glossed over, or just not talked about.
It was used to tell me that my feelings were not valid and should not be interrogated with integrity.
One should not assume positive intent. One should assume that people mean what they say and do and act accordingly. And people should be held accountable for what they say and do. Not what they intend.
Before you open your mouth to say something to a coworker or direct report make sure that what you’re about to say and how you say it is an alignment with your intentions. No one should be forced to try to figure out what you had in your mind at the time you opened your mouth, that’s your responsibility no one else’s.
Employers who choose to align themselves with and protect or excuse employees who say inappropriate racist or just downright shitty things and then seek cover under “I didn’t intend “ are just as bad as the actors themselves.
The phrase itself is often used in a discriminatory manner where the only employees who hear it are those who are already underrepresented in the workplace. They are the ones told that they should assume positive intent from the majority no matter how disgustingly problematic the majority group's behavior is.
Interestingly the phrase is rarely used to protect The words or actions of people of color and especially Black women at work.
We don’t get to cloak ourselves in the assumption of positive intent. Generally, only they do.
It’s time to exile this phrase into the wilderness where it belongs.
The next time your manager tells you to “assume positive intent“ you should ask them whether they would ask you to make that assumption if the bad actor looked more like you and less like them. Then document their response.
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If you are being subjected to discriminatory or otherwise toxic and hostile behavior in your workplace and are then being told that you should just “assume positive intent“ we should have a talk.
Don’t assume positive intent. Assume they mean what they said or did when they said or did it and act accordingly.
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