“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” — Henry G. Bohn
At some point, all of us have encountered actions at work that could be considered “questionable.” When confiding in a mentor or manager, a common response is to “assume good intent.” However, a missing consideration is “good intent for whom?”. I believe that few people actively sabotage projects and relationships at work, but many may risk sabotaging them for self-interest. Oftentimes, Occam’s razor rings true: the simplest explanation is most likely the right one, so instead of developing a convoluted theory to explain what is happening, it may just be that the person is operating under self-interest without “good intent.” Furthermore, office politics will always exist, and some people are more interested in self-gain than the greater good.
Many years ago, a client engagement associate I’ll refer to as “Amanda”¹ joined my project. From that moment on, chaos ensued: balls were dropped, clients were told the wrong deadlines, and presentations were not ready in time. When one of the data scientists flagged this to me, my initial reaction was: “Let’s assume good intent — maybe she’s just new and still getting into the swing of things.”
This persisted for over a month, leaving the data scientists and engineers increasingly frustrated. One day, Amanda volunteered to lead a user training and demo session that we would present to our clients in three weeks. I asked “Yvonne,” our product analytics lead, to share her previous training and demo materials and to help Amanda prepare for the session.
One week went by. Nothing from Amanda. Two weeks went by. Still nothing. Two days before the training, Amanda sent a group message to Yvonne and me informing us that she would not be able to make it to the client site to run the training and demo session that day. Yvonne and I spent the next two evenings preparing to co-lead the session. Understandably frustrated, Yvonne reminded me that this wasn’t the first time Amanda had dropped the ball at the last minute — a pattern implying bad intent — but I still figured it might have been unintentional and that we should probably assume good intent.
A few months later, Amanda volunteered to lead a user training and demo session for our clients again — this time to its executives. While multiple team members had some concerns, there were some higher-ups who insisted she should take it on, so we obliged. Again, two weeks went by with nothing to show for them. This time, the night before the session, she messaged Yvonne and me, “Hey, I can’t lead the session tomorrow, but I’m happy to sit in to observe and learn!”. Fortunately, Yvonne and I were able to adapt the previous session’s preparation material and put together the presentation in time.
The next day, after the presentation, in an internal meeting with the leads of our broader group, Amanda remarked, “I feel that we didn’t do a good job catering to the executives during our user training and demo session.” We asked for specifics, but she wasn’t able to provide any. At that point, I realized that good intent or not, Amanda’s number one concern was self-preservation. In order to divert attention from her broken promises, she proceeded to give us “feedback,” even though she didn’t understand the material well enough to provide any concrete examples.
The damage to team unity and morale Amanda caused cannot be overstated. By assuming good intent, I had let this issue fester for longer than I should have. Worse, it ended up becoming a way to shut people down, so that others felt less comfortable with continuing to raise issues. Had I assessed the situation in a more intellectually honest way, I could have concluded that we should stop assuming good intent from Amanda sooner and prepared for the inevitable fallout instead of repeatedly requesting that other team members jump in at the last minute to extinguish the fires that she had ignited.
“Assume good intent” is often used as a way to dismiss people’s concerns. Annalee wrote a wonderful article, How “Good Intent” Undermines Diversity and Inclusion, where they explains (I highly recommend you read the full article):
In that context, people telling you to “assume good intent” sounds like they’re really telling you to shut up. That your feelings about getting stomped on all the time don’t matter. That no matter how sore your foot is, how much money you’ve spent replacing ruined shoes, how many times you’ve limped on broken toes, you still have a responsibility to worry about the feelings of the people who are hurting you. Because they don’t mean it. As if that makes a difference.
I’ve had countless mentees come to me expressing frustration over being silenced when they flag a personnel issue to their managers only to have their managers respond with, “Assume good intent.” The reality is that while few people have actively bad intent, many do not have actively good intent. While Hanlon’s razor states, “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence,” oftentimes it’s equally misguided to ascribe to incompetence that is adequately explained by malice. “Malice” here may not mean actively harming others, but oftentimes just means prioritizing self-interest over helping the team or company.
Now, I am not saying that you should start assuming bad intent whenever you encounter any mistake. However, I do think it is important to recognize the role self-interest plays in people’s actions, and that when overwhelming data points to the likelihood of not-so-good intent, you should not override that data with the blind faith of “assuming good intent.” Recognizing this allows you to hope for the best while preparing for the worst by accurately diagnosing the root cause, actively addressing it, and not letting badness linger in your organization. In a future article, I will discuss some of the ways to actively address a person who is not acting with good intent.
 Some readers have asked if this is the same Amanda from a previous article, Do You Work for a Real Tech Company? I can neither confirm nor deny :)
For more musings on tech culture, organization building, and management, follow me on Twitter @kenk616.