Lessons on assuming positive intent

Paul Asel shares lessons on one of our guiding principles; Assume positive intent.

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” — Atticus Finch, in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Assume positive intent. NGP Capital adopted this principle during the last downturn in 2009. ‘Assume positive intent’ is one of the core principles in NGP Capital’s Mission and Standards of Practice. Yet it is during crucible moments when these principles are tested. How well does our practice match our principles?

Assuming positive intent is essential to NGP Capital’s culture, as we are a distributed organization operating across three continents and six locales. Effective communication is challenging in the best of times. Collaboration becomes more fraught during stressful times, in periods of high uncertainty and rapid change, and in crises demanding rapid responses. Time gets squeezed, the mind narrows, and tensions run high. Our natural survival instinct is ‘fight or flight.’ It takes mental and emotional discipline to counter these natural tendencies.

Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, described assuming positive intent as “the best advice I ever got” in an interview with Fortune Magazine in 2008. She noted, “When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you…assume positive intent…your emotional quotient goes up. …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.”

Jim Whitehurst, President & CEO of Red Hat, highlighted the importance of assuming positive intent in a distributed, open source community. His advice: “Practice patience [his emphasis]. Before jumping to conclusions about people’s intentions, stop and ask yourself about their frames of reference.” Assume they are “doing the best they can with the data, resources, and perspective they have, to make the most sound choices they can.”

Amir Gannad, author of Transformational Leadership, notes, “Assuming positive intent requires intentionality to go beyond our auto-pilot mode of judging ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. It keeps the organization focused on the mission, speeds up issue resolution, encourages bold moves, instills a culture of accountability and collaboration, and improves relationships.”

Over the years, NGP Capital has tapped leading experts on the subject of building effective teams and a collaborative culture. We have incorporated expertise from the US military in a workshop with David Silverman and Chris Fussel, authors of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement in a Complex World.

Amy Herman, author of Visual Intelligence, led a seminar on the ‘Art of Perception’ reminding us that we don’t see the same thing even when looking at the same picture.

Here are some lessons from the experts and others who have advocated for the principle, ‘assume positive intent.’ The following are a few points that they consistently highlight:

  • Pause and reflect: The first principle in Amy Herman’s Visual Intelligence is to slow down: “Slowing down doesn’t mean being slow, it just means taking a few minutes to absorb what we are seeing. Details, patterns, and relationships take time to register. Nuances and new information can be missed if we rush past them.” As a child, I enjoyed visiting art galleries with my grandmother and aunt, both artists. They had an artist’s appreciation for paintings that I lacked, and could observe and discuss a painting for a half-hour or more. When they walked streets, they walked slower and saw more. I often marveled at their attention to detail and how much more vividly they saw life. Amy writes about how often we miss important details, even the essence of the picture, by overlooking what is right in front of us.
  • Seek first to understand, then to be understood: This is principle #5 from Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. We only see the world we look for. Effective communication begins with hearing, not speaking. Good questions are better than good answers, as advice is often toxic. Michael Haugen from GH Smart advised us to ‘Get Curious’ using three simple phrases: “What?” “How?” and “Tell me more.” As Aimee Allen, Head of the Harbor Montessori School notes, “In assuming positive intent, we slow down and ask ourselves to see things through the eyes of someone else.” Or as Atticus Finch advised his son in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
  • Communicate frequently, in person: Nimbleness in a dynamic, fast paced environment requires seamless communication. Email is an effective broadcast, descriptive tool but is ill-suited for debating, communicating nuance and making decisions. Video conferences are the new norm in this current crisis. David Silverman and Chris Fussel described in Team of Teams the transition the US military made to combat Al Queda in Iraq. General Stanley McCrystal upended US military’s centralized, secretive culture by instituting daily, global calls across the Joint Special Operations Command. If JSOC could do 15 minutes daily across all military branches, surely any company can communicate with similar frequency.
  • Give the full picture: Amy Herman observed that it was no coincidence “that two of the twentieth’s century’s most famous and ferocious communicators — Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler — were avid painters.” Faint signals and tacit assumptions are rarely conveyed in clipped conversations, but are often critical to our conclusions. Articulating fully, yet concisely, is an art that requires voicing the assumptions, facts, and opinions that underly our narrative.
  • Keep an open mind: Psychology teaches us that our minds close quickly once we have made an initial commitment. Confirmation bias starts early as we discard contrary evidence and seek confirmatory views. In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely summarizes his cautionary tale on overconfidence in decision-making as follows: “If I had to distill one lesson from my research…it is that we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually like to think of ourselves as sitting in the driver’s seat, with ultimate control over decisions we make and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires — with how we want to view ourselves — than with reality.” Amy Herman tells us to test assumptions, pay attention to detail, look for what is missing and seeks other’s views. NGP Capital has long instituted an inverter or wingman to counter confirmation bias. Warren Buffet, in his last annual letter, proposed to take this process one step further by hiring two expert advisors, one pro and one con, to deliver investment views to the Board. Buffet admitted that deal fever is his greatest nemesis to prudent investment decisions. How much more do we need to be vigilant on this point?
  • Trust, mutual respect: The best communication falters unless our interactions are founded on trust and mutual respect. The patriarch of Merrill Lynch, my first employer, offered me this advice before hiring me: “Trust takes twenty-five years to build and five minutes to destroy.” With each interaction we add to or draw from a trust tank. The trust tank, unlike our gasoline tank, has no gauge, so we never really know where we are unless we go to a place where no one wants to be. To use an analogy from David Brooks, let’s be “A Nation of Weavers,” not a nation of rippers: “Every time you assault or stereotype a person, you’ve ripped the social fabric. Every time you see that person deeply and make him or her feel known, you’ve woven it.”
  • A higher purpose: Start with “Why?” NGP Capital shares a common goal to make good investments and delivery superior fund performance. Marc Benioff claims in Trailblazer: the Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change that mission-driven companies have an extra gear, an ability to outperform in good times and endure tough times. Salesforce’s 1–1–1 philanthropic model, which sets aside “1% of our equity, product, and employee time for charitable causes” is a founding principle for Benioff. NGP Capital has fifteen points in our Standards of Practice that govern HOW we operate. Before that, however, we have five principles in our Mission Statement that guide WHY we exist. They include: “Make a Difference” through the companies in which we invest, “Be Thought Leaders” in our investment sectors, and “Reshape the Corporate Venture Model.”

Standards that govern how we operate — those are non-negotiable. The WHY is up to us. When we aim for the highest standards in our mission statement, we can “make a dent in the universe,” as Steve Jobs has advocated.