Assuming Best Intentions is Bullsh*t
December 10, 2019 8:13 PM   Subscribe

I work in education, and it's a big part of the culture to discuss norms before every meeting. One team member always says the guiding norm should be to assume best intention, but that really rubs me the wrong way and I need help rephrasing the sentiment.

I am not a fan of "assume best intentions" because I've found that it has a tendency to give people a pass. So there's entitled behavior, sexism, racism, all sorts of generally obnoxious behavior and it ends up getting a pass and undermines diversity because you know, let's assume best intentions.

Here's a situation (not real): Kevin in the school library books a Scholastic book fair to fundraise and get books for the library, and the team says that creates serious equity issues they would prefer we not fundraise this way. Kevin gets fighty and says he's just raising money and why are we not assuming best intentions, and Karen responds that best intentions doesn't mean you get to run with thoughtless ideas all the time (apparently there's history here) because you're an entitled white man who doesn't understand rural poverty.

This type of thing happens weekly in this district where I work, and I'd like us to move beyond this assuming best intention area into something slightly more helpful.

What are other guiding norms that successful teams use that encourage thought and responsibility and vulnerability?
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes to Work & Money (27 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I always phrase it "Assume best intentions - but take responsibility for the impact of your words."
posted by ChuraChura at 8:21 PM on December 10, 2019 [13 favorites]

First, do no harm?
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:27 PM on December 10, 2019

Best answer: I'm not sure I see how intentions are relevant at all in the example you provide... What matters aren't the intentions behind the act, but the nature of the act itself and its consequences.

What's relevant is whether Kevin's idea actually does create equity issues, not Kevin's intentions behind suggesting it. The idea is exactly the same, whether he's motivated by earnest kindheartedness or purposefully ignorant privilege, after all, so why not assume good ones? Because, the point is, assuming best intentions doesn't require accepting that a bad idea is actually a good one--it just means not focusing on whether the suggester is dumb or mean or whatever.

Can you thus think of it this way? "Let's focus on actionable ideas and the pros and cons for them, rather than getting sidetracked about why someone might bring up the suggestions they do." Or: "When in doubt, focus on observable facts rather than people's motivations."
posted by meese at 8:33 PM on December 10, 2019 [50 favorites]

It seems like "Assume best intentions" is kind of meaningless because Kevin wasn't assuming the best intentions of everyone else. Maybe something like "Everyone gets a chance to make their case."
posted by bleep at 8:34 PM on December 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I don’t have an answer to your question but do have thoughts about the issue.

I also work in a school setting where we are regularly urged to assume best intentions. I think it’s a reasonable idea that may get misused. In the (not real) example you cite, it would suggest that the colleagues assume that Kevin’s intent is to get more books in the library for kids, a noble intention that doesn’t excuse his reluctance to accept how the Scholastic Book Fair might make kids who can’t afford to participate feel. By assuming that Kevin’s intent is benign, it might help to direct the conversation towards, say, what are some ways to build the library collection that don’t have these negative effects? This approach might lead to a resolution that serves the students needs and that doesn’t exacerbate the economic inequities...
posted by carterk at 8:37 PM on December 10, 2019 [13 favorites]

Here's a list of some possibilities. "Meaning is with the listener" is one option.
posted by slidell at 8:48 PM on December 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

“Don’t just criticize; suggest otherwise.” Might keep the focus on how to accomplish the goal instead of shifting to the putative shortcomings of the person who made the objected-to suggestion.
posted by lakeroon at 9:21 PM on December 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I sometimes try to assume people aren't actively trying to be assholes. It's a much easier bar to clear than good intentions.
posted by bunderful at 9:21 PM on December 10, 2019 [11 favorites]

Brene Brown has a really nice discussion on this, which I can badly summarize as we can't really accept that other people are acting with good intentions unless we are able to set the boundaries we need to keep ourselves true to ourselves. Perhaps you could look to some of her work?
posted by lab.beetle at 9:36 PM on December 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Agreed with everyone here, and I think the point of the aphorism is actually fairly wise - you can't usually know anyone's intentions, so why focus on their intentions? It's not actually meant to excuse anything, but rather to avoid getting bogged down in unkowables and focus on deliverables.

That said, I know what you mean about the mis-use of this, and I feel like there are probably better ways to make the same point. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, after all.

The Hippocratic Oath (hat-tip) should be mandatory.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:37 PM on December 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

You can assume best intentions, and use the related principle of charity, but those alone aren't enough, for all the reasons you already know about—intentions matter, but only to a point. The best way of dealing with this I've found is to have a focus on outcomes, which is what you're really interested in, rather than individual inputs. In your example, the desired outcome isn't just to raise money, it's to equitably run a library, which is broader and more useful.

This is even more important, for what it's worth, in the aftermath of proposals that have unexpected or unwanted outcomes—a focus on outcomes lets teams review things like performance, techniques, principles, e.g. 'how can we raise money and get books in a fair way that's sustainable into the future', rather than jump to individualised inputs, e.g. 'Kevin ran his mouth again', 'Karen just criticised and wasn't helpful'.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:05 PM on December 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I now work in an area that's guided solely by positive client outcomes, and there's no talk of assuming best intentions at all. Indeed, you can often see solutions that were intended to help doing actual harm, either through unforeseen side effects or by crowding out better solutions. The people I work with are tremendously kind, but might not be described as particularly “nice”.

Performing large gestures (like a book drive) are often seen as above reproach, but they shouldn't be if they endanger your department's viability.
posted by scruss at 10:22 PM on December 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

In your example, I think it's okay to assume that Kevin had good intentions when he came up with his idea, rather than going straight to "entitled white asshat!"

But then once he pushes back on a legitimate critique, you've given it a try with the "assume best intentions" part and he's just being a jerk.

I suspect the point of "assume good intentions" is to give everyone the benefit of the doubt at first, not to suspend judgement about everybody forever.
posted by mccxxiii at 10:41 PM on December 10, 2019 [18 favorites]

Assuming positive intentions doesn’t mean you don’t hold people accountable for negative outcomes. Someone can mean well and do harm. The point is to get them to see the impact of their actions and fix it (or learn). You can’t know what was in Kevin’s heart, or what his life experience is. You have made an assumption (probably a good one but it is still an assumption) based on your hypothesis. But the fact is his actions were diminishing and harmful. The fact is he failed to consider some people he should have. It doesn’t matter why, really, although you could feel free to ask him. You get your best changed behavior out of people by focusing on the behavior you want changed. Leave figuring the root causes of it to him and his therapist!
posted by pazazygeek at 11:07 PM on December 10, 2019 [7 favorites]

Perhaps borrowing from "hope for the best, but prepare for the worst," this could be amended to "assume good intentions, but plan for bad outcomes (and adjust accordingly)." In other words, we must always ask, what could go wrong with this idea, and how can we head that off before it's a problem? Like, it's cold out, and the heater isn't working, and my solution is to use the gas oven as a heat source to keep the family warmer until it can be fixed. (good for me! I care about the family and have good intentions!) ... but hold on, is this actually safe? (What could go wrong with this idea?) I should probably research if using the oven this way is a good idea. (Plan for bad outcomes.) Uh oh, carbon monoxide poisoning is a real danger and I don't want to kill everyone! Better abandon that option. (adjust accordingly.)
posted by taz at 11:56 PM on December 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Not sure I really have much useful to add beyond what people have said here, but just wanted to pipe up that I find this to be an interesting conversation, as at some point I came up with assuming best intentions as a rule for myself to reign in my social anxiety a bit which is always telling me that people mean the worst and therefore has in the past caused me to act accordingly when not really merited, resulting in problems in relationships. From that perspective, I don't think it's a bad principle for maintaining good relationships.

I think when you broaden that to talking about issues like racism, sexism, etc. it is still a somewhat useful concept in that it can help beat back the idea that I personally think is accepted in American culture anyway that people who say racist or sexist things or act in that way are necessarily bad people, which is presumably what Kevin is reacting to in your example. Assuming best intentions in those cases for me is interesting to think about as it highlights how individuals are a part of a system that makes racist or sexist (or other -ist) things the norm and therefore contributes to their actions. This is not to say people shouldn't be responsible for their actions but I think if we as a culture could kind of "cool it" with moral judgments it might make it easier to have productive conversations because people wouldn't have to spend their time being defensive when really to someone's behavior around these issues they need to be open to and take the lead in self-reflection that could cause them to be more sensitive. I guess a good alternative to think about would be "calling people in" instead of "calling out" (something I heard about during some community work at one point) which is another way to say assuming best intentions and that someone is acting in good faith while urging them to reflect on how their actions may impact others and potential areas for change and not just letting things go.

All that said, I can imagine that in some cases the end result may be the same whether you "call someone out" somewhat aggressively or "call them in" in a nice and sugarcoated way. It's just finding the right balance of assertiveness and diplomacy for a given situation.
posted by knownfossils at 12:00 AM on December 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

You could also try facilitating a discussion about white supremacy culture in the organization, which touches on things like perfectionism and defensiveness as a starting point to cultivating a more open environment, depending on what the context of all of this is.
posted by knownfossils at 12:07 AM on December 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, nonviolent communication.
posted by knownfossils at 12:11 AM on December 11, 2019

“Don’t just criticize; suggest otherwise.”

This doesn't allow anyone to criticize a bad Idea unless they have a solution. But a bad idea is bad regardless of whether I know a better way.
posted by biffa at 12:45 AM on December 11, 2019 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Sheesh, I hate that intentions crap. If you hit someone with your car, it really doesn't matter where you intended to drive. I would say,

"Sure, I do believe that Kevin probably meant well, but that actually is not relevant to anyone but Kevin. For the rest of us, as individuals and as an organization, we need to take a close and honest look at how our actions concretely affect other people, especially people out in the world who don't know us personally and therefore can't assume best intentions.

These [actions] affect these [community members] in these [harmful ways]. That's not intentional, but it is accurate. So we need to pivot and behave like this instead.

Shifting the conversation to a referendum on Kevin's character or what he meant is not relevant to our next steps, and worse, it is actually harmful, because it changes the subject away from the people out there who we are harming, and centres one person in this room- which means those other people continue to experience harm. Instead of fixing the harm, we end up sitting here going down rabbit holes of defining people's intentions.

I have nothing personal to say about anyone in this room, we obviously all MEAN well. Let's take it a step further and make equally sure we DO well by looking closely at each situation. We always need to focus on how our actions affect others, and ensure that the effects we have on others, whether they are deliberate or accidental, align with our principles of fairness (etc).

In this case, having a book fair means we raise money by expecting parents to buy books for their kids. Parents of course want to buy books for their kids, but there is rampant poverty and unemployment in this area, and we don't want people who can't afford food to spend their last $10 on books, or feel bad that they can't do so.

So while this plan was well-intentioned, it doesn't work, because it reinforces our community's lack of funds. We don't need to investigate the intentions any longer. We do need to pivot our plan, and also I think we needed to clarify what the harm here would be (pressuring low-income parents) so we don't re-create that harm with subsequent plans.

So, the next best action for us would be to brainstorm some ways we can fundraise that don't require low income community members to spend or donate money they don't have... So maybe we can discuss, who in our community DOES have disposable income and how can we access THEM?"
posted by nouvelle-personne at 1:39 AM on December 11, 2019 [9 favorites]

I think it’s a bit odd to have “assume best intentions” as THE guiding principle in an educational setting. I wonder if there’s an opportunity to do some intent-impact gap training or at least talk about “good intent, but what’s the impact?”
posted by warriorqueen at 3:09 AM on December 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think the problem that you're encountering with using "assume good intentions" as the guiding principle is that "assume good intentions" only applies to how you treat the person who is acting, but everyone is also applying it to the action and the idea. So you need to amend the principle in a manner (like taz suggested) to refocus everyone on the outcome, while bearing in mind they need to treat the person responsible as though the negative outcome is unintended.

So, again like taz said, use as your guiding principle: "assume good intentions, but plan for bad outcomes" This reminds every to shift the focus away from the people making the decisions and to the impact of the decisions. As many folks have said, the intention is probably irrelevant (because if someone is intentionally promoting discriminatory policies, the institution will have to address it through a different channel), so you don't want to bog your conversations in accusations or reassurances or explanations.
posted by crush at 7:15 AM on December 11, 2019 [6 favorites]

I think "assume best intentions" does apply to Karen, although it isn't relevant to the fundraising strategy.

Kevin suggested an idea that a lot of schools do. He didn't think it all the way through to realize why it isn't appropriate at this school. An "assume best intentions" approach would have directed Karen to set out why the book fair was the wrong choice for this school, without insulting him for being "entitled."

"Assume best intentions" is fine as an approach for evaluating whether something needs to be called out as rude or hurtful. It isn't relevant to evaluating effectiveness or appropriateness of actions and policies. Seems like your school needs a policy like "assume best intentions for words, focus on the outcomes for actions."
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:40 AM on December 11, 2019 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Like others, I stress that "Assume good intent" doesn't work well without the other half, which is "Recognize impact". I actually love this pairing and think it can work very effectively, but only if people are familiar and fully incorporating it. So for example here's how I would think through your example:

Kevin in the school library books a Scholastic book fair to fundraise and get books for the library,

It's easy to assume good intent here - the good intent is to get books for the library. It's extremely unlikely he did this as some sort of deliberate ploy. This is an easy assumption.

and the team says that creates serious equity issues they would prefer we not fundraise this way.

So, the best way to phrase this is - assuming the best possible version of Kevin - approaching it from "I know you meant well, but you must not have known that this creates serious equity issues. Here's how it does."

Kevin gets fighty and says he's just raising money and why are we not assuming best intentions,

This is easier if you've already said the former, but there's always room for a "No Kevin, of course we believe in your good intentions, that's why we know that now that you've been corrected on this, you'll be willing to reschedule/not do it next time/whatever the action you're hoping for.

and Karen responds that best intentions doesn't mean you get to run with thoughtless ideas all the time (apparently there's history here) because you're an entitled white man who doesn't understand rural poverty.

This is not the optimal way for dealing with this even if it's correct because it creates a fight that other people (usually women) will ultimately wind up managing and makes everyone's lives worse. The optimal way for saying this is something like "Kevin, I know you mean well, but this is the fourth time you've accidentally done something wrong. I think, because I know you mean well, that you could use a training on how to be more responsive to the needs of our community."

This puts him in the point of having to argue against other people viewing him as the nicest version of himself, which most people don't want to do, and it has the advantage of working whether it's true or not. Like, if he really does mean well, then you're offering him an opportunity to succeed more and to use those good intentions in ways with good impact. And if he doesn't mean well, there's no harm done by him getting more training, and it's not like if you'd yelled at him that he was a bad person he would have changed his actions any.
posted by corb at 8:43 AM on December 11, 2019 [7 favorites]

I'd go the other way with this, and if 'equity' (or whatever else) trumps, then a list of 'appropriate fundraising methods' should come from the top down and be communicated to teachers.

Declaring book fairs to be an inequitable method of fundraising (my extremely poor rural school had book fairs and kids loved them) is making a lot of assumptions that are fine, but they should not be open for debate.

If this is the committee creating the 'equity decision tree', then you need to prioritize your culture first, and then work from that priority list, not by 'assuming best intentions' from a brainstorming group.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:35 AM on December 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’ve always preferred “assume no malice”. If malice becomes apparent while dealing with the situation, you’re obviously going to need to acknowledge it for what it is, but starting from the perspective of “Jim from marketing is doing this just to fuck with me” isn’t going to help anyone.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 5:49 PM on December 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses. I am starting to think that the larger issue is more that everyone here likes to talk about norms and everyone's intent, and actually, very little action occurs. Everyone is nitpicking about the ladder of inference and assuming intent and not much gets done. It's just the culture here--lots of talking, little action.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 8:33 PM on December 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

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