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Give Benefit of the Doubt in the Work from Home World

By Carole Wehn

The working-from-home (WFH) world hasn’t always brought out the best in us.

“How do I know she\’s actually working at home?  Her performance metrics are way down.”

“He constantly sends late-night emails to make me think he’s always on.”

“That supplier is just using COVID as an excuse for raising prices and not getting our deliveries here on time.”

Have you found yourself thinking any of these things?  COVID and the WFH environment caused us to re-think and challenge old assumptions about how and where work gets done. It also may have challenged our thinking about our teams and partners when we are interacting with them in new and different ways.

Assume Positive Intent

We make decisions about people through observation, through listening to their tone of voice and by reading body language.  We also use information gleaned through prior experiences and even the person’s reputation. In this way, we determine whether we can trust people and believe what they are saying.

In the WFH world, it\’s more complicated to assess people when you must rely on emails and Zoom calls instead of face-to-face interaction.

As human beings, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of assuming the worst about people, especially when their work performance isn\’t up to par, or they are delivering bad news.  We generally see what we\’re looking for. If we believe that people are good and well-intentioned, we\’ll see the best in them.  The converse is also true.

Our assumptions and expectations about others can influence their behavior. When we assume that the other person is good, fair, and honest, the other person is more likely to act this way.

On the other hand, if someone feels that they are not trusted or respected by another, they will likely be uncomfortable and act defensively. If we begin a negotiation thinking that the other person is trying to cheat us or take advantage of us, the chances of a positive outcome are reduced.

Positive Intent and Effective Listening

Indra Nooyi, the former CEO and Chairman of Pepsico, said that her father taught her the significance of always assuming positive intent.  She advised in a 2008 Fortune article,

“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… 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.’”

As Nooyi noted, being angry affects your ability to listen to understand and determine the facts.  She continued,

“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.”

Avoid Fundamental Attribution Error

Trying to understand why people may be reacting in a certain way is confronting fundamental attribution error (FAE).  A Psychology Today blog describes this as “when we see someone doing something, we tend to think it relates to their personality rather than the situation the person might be in.”

The blog continues with an example,

“If someone cuts in front of you in line, your immediate reaction is, ‘This person is a complete jerk!’ But in reality, maybe he never cuts into lines and is doing it this time only because he is about to miss his plane, the one he’s taking to be with his great aunt, who is on the verge of death.”

Assuming positive intent considers what the person may be going through, which you might not know, rather than evaluating only what you can see.

Harvard Business School Online\’s Business Insights blog notes that,

“FAE is impossible to overcome completely. But with a combination of awareness and a few small tools and tactics, you can be more gracious and empathic with your coworkers. In fact, being able to acknowledge cognitive biases like FAE and make the conscious effort to limit their effects is an essential component of becoming a better manager.”

3 Benefits of Assuming Positive Intent

Assuming positive intent at work isn\’t just about playing nicely together. There are three primary benefits when we assume that our colleagues are all working to the best of their ability and aligned towards the same goals: 

  1. Information flows freely. People are more willing to share information when they are not thinking that the recipient will hoard or misuse it to their benefit. Team members will collaborate more, which may heighten innovation.

  2. Silos between departments are eliminated. One team won’t think that another department is out to make them look bad, wrest away valuable resources, or maneuver to get all the desirable projects to work on.

  3. Stress is reduced. Employees won’t be concerned about being the victim of misplaced blame or anger. Eliminating stress and negative attitudes helps create a trusting work environment. This will encourage employee retention and prevent team members from jumping ship for the next opportunity that comes along. 


An HR Playbook blog offers practical advice for teaching your team to assume positive intent. Rather than simply encouraging your employees to “think positively,” use a STAR acronym that will be easy for people to remember. When confronted with a tough situation where it would be easy to assume the worst about others, tell your team to take a deep breath and be a STAR:

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

Assuming Positive Intent in the WFH World

Tanya Hall, CEO of Greenleaf Book Group, wrote in an Inc. blog, “Negative intent is much more easily assumed when people don’t regularly engage with each other in person. Email lacks the human element, and as we automate processes and allow more employees to work remotely, we rely on it more heavily.”

Have you ever received an email where a colleague seems to have challenged your judgment and copied several others on it?  Do any of the following responses sound familiar:

  • You were angry that your colleague embarrassed you by sending such a negative email, and you fired off a response in your defense.
  • You figured that your colleague was trying to push his agenda and confronted him about it.
  • You told the others copied on the email that this colleague doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Your immediate response may have been to believe that the sender was being critical and out to undermine your authority. Instead, consider that the sender did not take the time to re-read his email and evaluate its tone before hitting send. Perhaps he was dealing with some difficult personal issues and was off his game. Most likely he did not intend to challenge your judgment, and you misinterpreted his tone.

Without the benefit of being able to read facial expressions or hear someone\’s tone of voice, it\’s easy to misunderstand what they are saying. Pick up the phone to ensure you\’re both on the same page. As with most issues in business, the root cause of lack of positive intent is often found in communication breakdown and a resultant lack of trust.

Phone calls, one-on-one Zoom check-ins, and Zoom social events can help you get to know colleagues on a more personal level. This helps you have a more effective framework for understanding where they\’re coming from. When difficult moments arise, you can better interpret their responses. Just seeing your colleagues dealing with their children and pets in the background of Zoom calls provides insight into the unique challenges each one juggles in addition to their work.

The Power of Setting an Example

Your team will always look to you to see what kind of behavior is expected and rewarded in your organization.  It doesn’t matter what values are posted on the walls; they will do what you do. 

If you publicly blast the manufacturing plant which posts recurring quality issues, or in a town hall meeting you chastise the region that never seems to make their sales numbers, you are driving culture. If you assume the worst in your employees, they will assume the worst in their interactions with colleagues, customers, and vendors.

Culture Help Is Here

Need help turning your company culture towards one where positive intent is routinely assumed?  At CultureWise we have helped numerous companies implement a Fundamental, our term for desired behaviors, called Assume Positive Intent.  We’ve defined this behavior as:

Work from the assumption that people are good, fair, and honest, and that the intent behind their actions is positive. Set aside your judgments and preconceived notions. Give people the benefit of the doubt.

Our approach to culture development starts with defining the Fundamentals or behaviors that drive success in your organization.  More information on our program can be found in CultureWise CEO David J. Friedman’s book Culture By Design, or at  And be sure to sign up for a complimentary subscription to our weekly newsletter Culture Matters to stay abreast of the latest information relating to company culture.