Beyond Best Intentions

Amanda Beiner

“Assume best intentions” is a common principle for organizations, teams, and communities. The idea is that if we can approach conflicts by assuming that everyone meant well, we can solve problems more efficiently and maintain team harmony.

This is a noble ideal to aspire to, but it obfuscates the real goal: building a team that works well together because they trust each other.

The problem with telling community members to “assume best intentions” during a conflict is that it’s already too late. If you have to be told to assume that your teammate didn’t intend to cause harm, it means your team hasn’t built the trust to actually believe it. Assuming best intentions is the result of building a culture of trust in your organization, not a step towards it.

Making “assume best intentions” a rule of participating in your community or organization is counter-productive. You can’t mandate trust; you have to build it. Building trust requires sustained, intentional effort.

Why good intentions fall short

A lot of times, people don’t mean to cause harm to others. They might not even realize that they’ve done it until someone brings it up. Still, requiring that someone who wants to address it first “assume best intentions” does more harm than good. It starts the conversation by prioritizing the comfort of the person who caused the harm over the equitable treatment of the person who has been harmed. We use valuable time and energy splitting hairs over whether someone “meant to” do something harmful instead of actually addressing the result.

Intentions don’t actually matter

Let’s say someone caught a bug in production. You have customers complaining and it’s costing the company money, so you seek out the person who recently changed that area of the code base.

Most likely, that person didn’t mean to introduce the bug. They didn’t intend to break production. That still doesn’t change the fact that the bug exists and it needs to be fixed. That’s because the intent of an action isn’t nearly as important as its impact.

When Michelle tells you that Jacob keeps talking over her in meetings, it doesn’t matter if Jacob doesn’t mean to interrupt her. The impact is that Michelle isn’t able to participate in meetings because Jacob is talking over her. Making sure that Michelle can participate as an equal is more urgent than making sure she believes that Jacob meant well.

Focusing on intent ignores larger social contexts

We are all humans with unique life experiences, and it’s impossible to separate our identities from how we experience work and community. Our companies and groups exist within a larger societal framework.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, queer folks, and disabled people are disproportionately likely to experience bias and discrimination at work and in social circles. When we make a blanket rule that everyone must “assume best intentions”, we essentially try to look past these inequalities into an idealized world where everyone is treated fairly and is therefore equally responsible for giving others the benefit of the doubt.

The assumption that everyone is equally likely to be harmed in the course of business is false. Making marginalized people “assume best intentions” in order to address the harm they’re facing further de-prioritizes their experiences.

Pivoting to trust-building

“Assuming best intentions” can be appealing because it makes conflict less obviously uncomfortable. Before raising an issue, teammates must filter their experiences to make it more palatable. It values peace over equity, and prioritizes harmony when harmony should not be the end goal.

Harmony requires the active work of each person adjusting towards some (usually white, male) norm. People outside of the norm have to be more accommodating than those closer to it, while those who fit the norm feel entitled to being constantly accommodated.

That’s not conducive to building strong, diverse, efficient teams. Bending to accommodate inflexible others is exhausting and unsustainable, and will lead to burnout and turnover. Building trust is not a practice in conflict avoidance. It’s a practice in consistent, constructive conflict resolution.

Build trust first

The edict of “assume best intentions” is often a placeholder for a more intangible question— how do we build a culture of trust in our organization?

Teams that operate on a foundation of respect and trust for one another may be able to assume best intentions by default when conflict arises. But you won’t get there by adding an extra hurdle to addressing harm. It’s easier to make a rule and hold people to it than it is to critically think about which norms build or erode trust.

Build trust first.