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Sunday, 29 April 2012 00:00

The Failure in Open-Mindedness

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Image of Assuming Positive Intent

The west coast of the United States is where I call home. Many refer to us as "left coaster" because... well... that is how it looks on a map and many of us are politically a little further to the left than others. Around here, common thought is that everyone should be open-minded. A sentiment that I proudly subscribe to as I lack most prejudices. You can imagine my shock when I found out that my unbiased presumptions are not only undesirable, but also undeniably wrong.

Presumption of Innocence


The epiphany came via the car radio. An interviewee replayed a story about serving jury duty. After spending a majority of her the day sitting in the selection waiting room, she thought she had escaped the drudgery of jury duty. In the last round of calls, her number was announced. She begrudgingly trundled off to the courtroom to listen to the judge describe the accusations of assault against a young woman who had been hospitalized for her injuries. The accused was sitting next to his lawyer carefully listening to the discussion. He looked nervous, or maybe just scared. The young lady was absent.

The interviewee was selected to be "in the box" and survived the litany of preemptory and other lawyerly challenges. She resigned herself to do the duty in the best manner possible and described how she removed all prejudices that had been instilled by our violence addicted culture. When the judge patiently asked her and the other jurors if, at this point, they knew enough about this case to determine the accused's innocence or guilt, without hesitation everyone replied that they lacked the information to make a verdict. The judge sternly directed the dozen that they did have enough data to make a decision. Implied in our constitution, a defendant is innocent until proven otherwise. A concept dating back to sixth-century Roman law—"Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat". For a good reason, prejudice is required.

Positive Intent

The same is true when you build a trusting team. Trust is an assumption that someone will "do the right thing." When something is done that appears contrary, focus your attention on the intent rather than the action. Avoid the skepticism and doubt—assume positive intent. Doing otherwise creates a poisonous environment of mistrust that inhibits building a team and infects others around the team.

A few years ago, we were working with a company that prominently stated one of their guiding principles was assuming positive intent, but every action was nothing but simple paranoia. Communication quickly disintegrated and people became defensive. Eventually, we put up the defensive shields and required direction and permission before doing any work (our normal positions are as leaders working with a high degree of autonomy). In every meeting our client would tell us what a great job we were doing, we would say thank you, move through the agenda, defend our deliverables, and ask what our next task should be. When the contract came up for renewal, we politely declined. The burden of continual defense and slow progress introduced by the micro-managing chain of command was not worth the revenue.

Questioning Intent

Presumed innocence is the best principle; however, it is challenging to maintain. Last year we were in a very successful meeting with a prospective client. They were proud of their progressive, open, and transparent culture. We were quite impressed and felt it would be a joy to work in such an environment. A few weeks later, one of our employees received a call from one of the prospect's executives who had not been in our initial meeting. He informed us that we offended the company's owner and employees in the meeting. As one might expect, we had an immediate retrospective. However, we failed to find any action that would have offended our potential client. We were perplexed. What did arise were numerous situations where the executive had been denigrating to one person in our company—namely myself. Talking to the company's owner and determining what had been done that was so offensive was the only option. Damage control. The owner was quite busy so schedule constraints and illnesses delayed the meeting for weeks. In the mean time, the accusing executive made more disparaging remarks indicting that the forthcoming meeting was an undue burden making the owner very apprehensive.

The day of the meeting finally came. I was anticipating a negative, potentially accusatory meeting. He was thirty-minutes late, only indicating so when he was already twenty minutes late. Through the actions and accusations, I had lost my ability to look for the positive. I took the delays as affirmation of the accusations. I was quite wrong. The meeting started congenially and, after nearly a half-hour of talking about our respective families, he was aghast when I asked what we had done to offend them. His reply was simple and genuine. In a perplexed voice he said, "Nothing, what makes you think that?"

The Dilemma

The dilemma was finding the positive intent. It could be a simple misunderstanding. The facts were that a "transparent" company's executive called my employee, rather than me, to complain about our alleged offense he never saw, casts doubt on the principles of the company and the executive. At what point do we suspect ulterior motives or something a little less than positive intent?

In this case, there was still more data to collect—a meeting with the four people involved (the owner, the executive, our employee, and myself) to get the complete story. Maybe even a follow-on meeting with the executive and myself to discuss his past comments. Without this, we could not engage with this company. However, assuming this was other than an internal miscommunication, we are still left with the decision of whether to engage with this company? Gaining more credibility than the hostile executive is doubtful and fighting a negative attitude can be exhausting and distract from the quality of the deliverable.

Your Opinion

Now it is time to hear from you. I am holding back the conclusion to this story and want to hear how you would proceed? Maybe it is to stop pursuing work with the company or trusting the owner to corral the executive. However, it could be something very different.

In a couple of weeks, I will disclose what we did and re-open the discussion.

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