Every leader will need to play the role of mediator at times. Employees will inevitably experience some conflict, which you'll be called upon to sort through. While there are best practices for dealing with conflict that has already erupted, there are also methods for heading off conflict altogether that you can implement with your team.
The concept of assuming best intent is not new. Overall, assume best intent simply means that you opt to give people the benefit of the doubt, rather than assuming that they are out to get you. If someone sends a seemingly rude email, we can assume that they want to embarrass us in front of the people copied or we can assume that they were in a hurry to send the email and didn't realize the negative tone.
Very little good can come from assuming the former, especially when that's coupled with an equally rude reaction, but tremendous good can come from training your staff to assume the best of their colleagues.
The problem, of course, with assumed best intent is that it relies on assumptions. So when working on implementing this mindset in your company, it should also be coupled with a process for removing assumption from the equation altogether.
Here's how to get your staff moving in the right direction.
Establish a Conflict Resolution Process
If certain employees continually come to you with complaints about their coworkers, start there and create a conflict plan that incorporates individual one-on-ones with each employee. The goal here is not to get to the bottom of who started it, but to take advantage of an opportunity to coach employees toward a new mindset.
It may seem like a large investment of your time to have one-on-one meetings when problems arise, but in the long run it will save you time and energy, as conflicts become less frequent. During the one-on-one, ask specific questions about the steps the employee took to get to the bottom of the conflict before a manager had to step in. Did they call the other employee or go to their office? Did they seek out both sides of the issue? What thoughts and emotions drove their behaviors?
These sessions aren't meant to feel like an attack but rather an attempt to understand the employee's thought process. It usually won't take long to find the moment when an assumption was made about another person, and an employee opted to assume negative intent. Use that example as a teaching moment to show the employee exactly where a more positive mindset would have changed things.
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.
Encourage employees to connect with each other better by hosting group outings or happy hours. Create communal work spaces where people from different departments can optionally work side-by-side. Ask teams to hold brown-bag lunches, where they present on what their department does (if your employees are remote, make it a lunchtime webinar).
When your company's work environment is more collaborative and employees better understand the roles of other departments, they are less likely to get caught up in their individual silos. They will also be more likely to walk up to a colleague's desk or give them a call to settle a misunderstanding than to let the situation escalate.
Practice What You Preach
Company culture is established, in large part, by the actions of the people at the top. If your management team assumes the worst in their own employees, those employees will assume the worst in their colleagues.
When you find yourself frustrated with one of your employees, take a moment to ensure that your reaction is one that you'd want them to emulate. There may come a time to be stern, but that time should be after you have all the facts.
Give your managers opportunities to learn and grow as well, whether through professional development courses or asking them to read management books centered around this topic. It's easy for managers to get caught up in their day-to-day tasks and to forget the impact that they can have on their team's mindset and productivity.
Remove Assumption from the Equation
In addition to coaching employees on the mindset of assuming best intent, it's also critical to coach them on how to implement it. The process doesn't end because you think the best of your colleague's intentions. We have the most opportunity to assume positive or negative intentions when there's a lapse in communication, which is a problem for business. So coach your employees to find other ways of communicating with their colleagues when potential problems arise.
Take the communication to a new medium. Are emails becoming passive aggressive? Encourage them to pick up the phone. Is a group meeting getting a little heated? Ask employees to meet one-on-one. Private conversations where other distractions, frustrations, and opinions are removed often lead to a quick resolution of a problem.
At the end of the day, we each have a choice about how we communicate and interact with each other. But as a leader in your company, you also have the ability to set the tone for others and encourage them to react in a positive way. When they do, you'll see the benefits to productivity and employee satisfaction immediately.