With the news that Indra Nooyi, recently retired PepsiCo CEO, will join the Amazon Board of Directors I recalled a short interview she gave Fortune Magazine back in 2008.
Nooyi (whose last name my spell checker wishes to change to “Noon”) truly must be a remarkable leader. Since many volumes have been written about her, I won’t add to them. But in 2008 Fortune asked her to share her answer to a recurring segment they ran where they asked a famous business leader to share what “the best advice I ever got” was. Her answer made so much sense to me that eleven years later I still remember it:
My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, “Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.” So “assume positive intent” has been a huge piece of advice for me.
In business, sometimes in the heat of the moment, people say things. You can either misconstrue what they’re saying and assume they are trying to put you down, or you can say, “Wait a minute. Let me really get behind what they are saying to understand whether they’re reacting because they’re hurt, upset, confused, or they don’t understand what it is I’ve asked them to do.” If you react from a negative perspective – because you didn’t like the way they reacted – then it just becomes two negatives fighting each other. But when you assume positive intent, I think often what happens is the other person says, “Hey, wait a minute, maybe I’m wrong in reacting the way I do because this person is really making an effort.”
I loved this response, and it makes me think about how often many people misinterpret the advice she passes along in her answer. They think “assuming” positive intent is naive or passive. They think it might work for a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but doesn’t work on the streets.
However, assuming positive intent isn’t passive, it’s active. When we assume positive intent, we are open to non-verbal cues and underlying messages and – as she says – are “trying to understand and listen”. For me, this idea is often expressed as an “abundance mentality”, which is another way of being open to the new and the surprising.
This advice is perfectly suited for those seeking to be a light in our era of tribal politics and instant judgement. But it’s not just about making the world a better place – it can make you a better leader. People respond to those who see the best in them, who don’t view every message as a hidden attack or a desire to do something other than solving a common problem.
It’s easy to be bogged down in the zero-sum mentality that seems to underpin many business negotiations, but “assuming positive intent” will make you more likely to learn and establish trust. As Covey said in habit 5 of his book, “seek first to understand, then be understood”.
If you assume positive intent, you’ll be better able to understand, and you’ll be more likely to be understood.