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How to create a culture of positive intent: 4 steps

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Everybody has to deal with stress in the workplace, some more than others. Whether it’s having to do more with less, or other stressful challenges, negativity can easily infect the workplace. Often that negativity can manifest in snap judgments, the blame game, and erroneous assumptions about coworkers, especially in tense situations.

You can play a significant role in creating a positive work environment that addresses stress and the negativity that can come from harmful assumptions. It isn’t easy building and nurturing a culture that empowers employees to manage stress and the demands of the job in a positive way. But, with a concerted team effort starting from the top, you can begin to steer the ship toward a work culture that assumes the best in others, even in tense situations or conflicts.

How do you encourage employees to assume the best in others? It all starts with taking steps to build a work environment of positive intent.

Benefits of positive intent

What exactly is positive intent? Positive intent means choosing to assume that our coworkers are working to the best of their ability with the resources and information they have now. At its core, positive intent is believing that we’re all doing the best we can.

In addition to saving valuable energy by eliminating unnecessary anxiety and negative emotional cycles in the workplace, assuming positive intent can improve the professional lives of all employees in several other ways.

Reduced stress: How much would it reduce workplace tension levels if everyone assumed the positive in situations first? Think about times you have mistakenly blamed someone, jumped to false conclusions or said something you wished you could take back. Have you ever sent a gut-reaction email you wish you hadn’t? Practicing positive intent can reduce or even eliminate these stressful events for you and your entire team. 

Greater efficiency and collaboration: A team that assumes positive intent with each other will usually be more efficient and better at collaborating because of improved communication. Without the typical barriers and walls that come from negative assumptions, everybody works better together.

Improved work relationships: Practicing positive intent has a strong impact on work relationships. Employees will feel more comfortable with each other and will want to work together on projects or initiatives. Also, positive intent instills confidence in coworkers. People will often go to great lengths for someone who believes in them. 

Practical steps for building a positive intent culture

Practicing positive intent is as much a muscle memory habit as it is a mindset. Once your employees start to think in a certain way, it will become easier and more natural for them. And, once your employees see the great results, your company may see newfound energy and momentum within your ranks that will infuse all operations with positivity.

These practical steps will help build a workplace environment that empowers each employee to develop their positive intent mental muscle.

Step #1: Create strong value statements. Company leadership can help guide employees toward always assuming the best in others by spelling out expectations for how people should manage situations and conflicts. The process of creating value statements around positive intent – whether they are integrated with your company’s mission statement, value propositions, or other internal messaging – can be a team-building exercise starting at the C-suite and managerial level too.

Step #2: Launch a “Be a Positive Intent STAR” campaign. As you roll out the concept of positive intent to your workforce, it’s important to provide clarity. Rather than simply instructing your people to “think more positively,” use a STAR acronym that spells out some practical advice on implementing positive intent that will be easy for people to remember. When confronted with a tough situation where it would be easy to assume the worst, instruct your employees to take a breath and be a STAR:

  • Stop yourself from taking any impulsive action based on strong negative emotions
  • Tell yourself that your coworkers, managers, or customers have good intentions
  • Avoid sending rash emails
  • Recognize that everyone wants to be successful in their jobs

Step #3: Lead by example when mistakes are made. People will make mistakes. It’s not because they’re out to harm the company (in most cases). There are many reasons for workplace mistakes – limited resources, bad information, conflicting direction, problems at home, or even medical issues. Allow your company’s leadership to demonstrate grace, even when people make mistakes that cost the company money. This is one of the most powerful strategies for transforming your workplace into a sanctuary of positive intent.

Tom Watson of IBM practiced grace and positive intent when an employee made a $600,000 mistake. When asked if he was going to fire the employee, Watson famously replied: “No, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?”

Step #4: Plan dedicated positive intent meetings and workshops. A regular schedule of events can help communicate the company’s new value statements, introduce the team to the STAR acronym, and offer additional tips on how positive intent can be implemented. These meetings or workshops could also include a discussion of common stressful scenarios or conflicts within the company, with group leaders offering guidance and advice on how they can be managed best using positive intent.

While building a positive intent culture may be challenging, fostering this new mindset using these four steps can begin to break down barriers to collaboration gradually. With continued efforts down this winning path, you’ll soon find your people naturally assuming the best in their coworkers, resulting in a more productive, happier workplace.

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