Great Leaders Assume Positive Intentions from People

Jake Wilder
4 min readAug 24, 2022

People are Rarely Stupid. Let’s Not Assume That They Are.

Photo: iStock

“It is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own,” wrote Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. I’ll add a management correlation: It’s much easier to blame other people’s mistakes on negative intentions than our own.

When we see someone else make a mistake, we’re looking at it in pure hindsight. We see something that didn’t go well and assume it was due to stupidity, greed, or any number of personal failures. It’s quick, easy, and it lets us move to think about something else.

But when we make mistakes, we go into much more depth. We create long and winding backstories that justify our decision. We add plenty of context to rationalize the path we took. Even as we recognize our mistakes, we never attribute them to malice. We always mean for the best. Sometimes things just don’t go our way.

When judging others, we want a simple story. When judging ourselves, we want a comforting story.

Everyone does this. It’s basic human behavior.

But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s right. And if you’re a manager, it creates a significant problem. It makes it easy to assume the worst of people. And you can’t build trust if you’re assuming the worst of those around you.

Recognize that We Never Know the Whole Story

“Those who judge will never understand, and those who understand will never judge,” said Gautama Buddha. Without knowing someone’s reasoning, it’s easy to pass judgment. Yet it’s important to remember that everyone’s behaviors make sense to them. If they don’t make sense to us, it’s only because we’re not privy to that same information.

We can look at someone doing something crazy and think, “Why would he or she ever do that?” Then, after we get to know them, understand their experiences and perspectives, we start to see the motives behind their actions.

Suddenly their choices don’t seem so crazy.

Everyone is a product of their unique experiences. And we’re never fully aware of what drives those around us.

Jake Wilder

I don’t know where I’m going. But at least I know how to get there.