When travelling by train the other day, I witnessed some behaviour that reminded me of an important leadership lesson: ‘First, assume good intent.’ What I saw was a typical example of what happens when we let our biases get in the way, when we pre-judge others and allow our negative thinking to cause wider problems.

Picture the scene: a busy commuter train and two ticket inspectors patrolling the carriages. On this occasion there was no cheery “Good morning!” as they entered the compartment, but rather a stony-faced bark of “Tickets!”. No please, no thank you. These two men had clearly not thought to assume good intent. It very much felt like they were looking to catch us out, and they believed every passenger was out to fiddle the system. It was not a pleasant experience from the passenger point of view.

They seemed surprised, disappointed even, when almost all of us produced a valid ticket. However, when they reached a young man just before me, who had pre-purchased a ticket online, it turned out that it could only be used on a later train. They leapt upon the situation and appeared to take great pleasure in throwing the poor lad into a state of fear and despair, as he phoned his mum on the verge of tears, to ask for a transfer of funds so he could pay for a ticket upgrade.

“First, assume good intent” is a mantra I encourage each of my mentees to adopt. As Stephen Covey wrote, “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”  As leaders, it can be easy to get into our own heads, particularly during stressful situations, leaping to judgement about the intentions behind people’s behaviours. But the truth is, until we ask the other person – seek first to understand – we simply don’t know what those intentions are.

When leaders act like the ticket inspectors, jumping to a conclusion about the behaviour or performance of someone, the negativity doesn’t just affect the ‘victim’. It has an impact on the leader too, as well as – in all likelihood – those in the wider team. When we don’t assume good intent, we plunge ourselves and others into a low mood that can affect us (and them) for hours.

As we observed in this blog, life is full of challenges and sometimes things are beyond our control. But we can control how we react to such situations, and being determined to assume good intent is an important tool in dealing with adversity. Rather than rushing to a (possibly) incorrect conclusion, assuming good intent allows us time to pause and reflect, listen to the other person and gather more information. Thanks to that space we have created, we can respond calmly.

So, my advice is to hit pause on jumping to conclusions and take an open and curious approach to unexpected, and perhaps unhelpful, behaviours that we see. Let’s assume good intent and look for the good in others as we seek first to understand.

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