The title of this post is a phrase often repeated in the onboarding process at my current company (and probably many others too). It sounds like a pretty straight forward thing doesn’t it? What kind of person would not automatically do this? I am afraid I’m one such person, and there is a reason why.
Once in my career I was bullied at work in a very subtle way for a long period of time. It was not obvious and I did not realize its effects on me until I was in pretty bad shape. The road to recovery was long and I think I won’t get completely over it. There are still times when my instincts kick in and I go into “protection mode” by some comment or a certain behavior. I have learned to recognize these feelings for what they are: ghosts from the past. However these things still affect me to this day.
What does my scars from bullying have to do with the initial quote: “always assume best intentions”. As I see it this statement comes from a place of privilege, by people who probably haven’t gone through similar things as I described earlier. My bully did not set out to bully me specifically (I think), having “no bad intentions” did not prevent this person from causing harm.
The statement “assume best intentions” is a bit similar to “don’t be an asshole” when it comes to how to codes of conduct on how behave in certain spaces. The problem with this statement, is that it ignores the unintentional assholes which cause a lot of issues. The same thing happens when some people use the phrase “assume best intentions” as an excuse to blurb out whatever they like without really taking into consideration the recipients or the current context. You can only expect people to assume best intentions if you have put in the work to build the trust and that trust has been built up over time.
I come prepared
Even in a welcoming and friendly environment where I trust people, I can still have those flash backs to past experiences.I react to comments or feedback in a way I don’t like and I get those old feelings back. In order to cope with this, I try to be vigilant when I react to comments. I pause, step back and try to see if this is “that old feeling” from a bad period causing my reaction. If it is, I acknowledge it and move on.
Certain things spark these feelings to occur more than others. Programming sessions with many people is a stressful event and does bring back those feelings of uncertainty. It used to feel like a battlefield or a test where I felt I was destined to fail. When I go into such sessions today I prepare myself mentally on the fact that I will have to deal with these emotions and know that I have to put to the side.
The road ahead
I am able to assume best intentions, but it’s only through working with these difficult feelings I can do it. It’s not always easy, but it’s part of me and I can use this knowledge to perhaps help others. Having had to deal with workplace bullying has broadened my horizon.
Being open and transparent about this is also important. By being open I can put words on feelings that others are experiencing, helping them realize they are not in a healthy work environment. This is the positive side of working through my own bullying experience: helping others.