Why “assume good intent” backfires

A view from the top of a curving staircase, showing a descending spiral of muted green and brown colors

“Assume good intent.” If this is in a code of conduct or a list of company values, that organization is in for a lot of trouble soon! That’s what I’ve learned through experience as a code of conduct and DEI consultant.

TL;DR: Telling people to “assume good intent” focuses on intentions rather than effects, helps bad actors waste other people’s time, and creates more pointless arguments. “Assume good intent” even makes diversity and inclusion worse instead of better! Keep reading to learn why.

People with good intent

First, let’s talk about “assume good intent” when everyone involved DOES have good intent.

Imagine a person with good intentions who does something that turns out to be harmful. Another person tells them that their action had a bad effect. What happens next?

In an ideal world, the person who accidentally harmed people would apologize, promise to do better, and make amends. But in the real world, they often say, “But I mean well, and you are breaking the rule about assuming good intent!”

What is happening here? People often think others are breaking the rule of “assume good intent” by focusing on the harmful results instead of their intent. (Do people feel the same way when they are on the receiving end of unintentional harm? Usually not, in my experience!)

The end result is that “assume good intent” makes it harder to point out when people are unintentionally harming others and fix the problem, even when everyone has good intentions.

People with bad intent

Now let’s talk about when someone actually does have bad intent!

Imagine a person with bad intent in your organization who hears about the new rule of “assume good intent.” Occasionally, they decide that they don’t want to be in an organization full of people assuming good intent and will leave.

But if they don’t want to leave, they can take advantage of the new rule. If they do something harmful on purpose and another person points it out, all they have to do is say, “Oh, but I meant well.”

Then they do another harmful thing. “Oopsie, I thought you would like that!” They do it again, and again. Eventually someone says, “Hey, I think this person has bad intentions!” Cue an argument over “assume good intent.”

Which person is breaking the rules? Not the person with bad intent! And since intent is something that is inside someone’s head, it is extremely hard to prove that someone meant to do harm. This causes useless strife and wasted energy.

Suspicious people

Finally, let’s talk about the situation most people have in mind when they say “assume good intent”: Someone with good intent who wrongly assumes other people have bad intent so often that it harms productivity.

Imagine a suspicious person learning about the new rule that everyone must “assume good intent.” What’s the most likely reaction, deciding they will start trusting other people? Or wrongly assuming other people are breaking the new rule?

Assume good intent harms DEI

Finally, why does “assume good intent” harm diversity and inclusion? Marginalized people are the people most likely to be harmed—and the least likely to be believed when they complain about being harmed. “Assume good intent” puts an extra barrier in the way.

If you want a better code of conduct or set of company values, Frame Shift Consulting can help. Read our free book on codes of conduct or learn more about our DEI consulting and training.

Featured image: CC BY-SA 3.0 Christian Kadluba https://flic.kr/p/P1cEm, edited by FSC