#49: Assuming another person's intent purely from their actions

In this episode I want to discuss how dangerous it can be to assume another persons intent purely from their actions.

This is a message I am seeing come up quite a bit lately.

And the more I think about it, the more I see it in everyday business work.

Both in how we perceive our teams and how our teams perceive us.

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Published: Wed, 22 Jul 2020 16:05:22 GMT


A persons intent can be very difficult to establish from their actions.

It can lead to incorrect assumptions being made about that individual.

We often assign intent to an individual based on how we interpret that actions.

But that is often giving us a misleading or just a completely incorrect view of their intent.

I've seen this subject being discussed in a number of places recently, but I wanted to pull from two books in particular.

"Never Split the Difference - Negotiating if your life depended on it" by Chris Voss


"Agile Conversations" by Douglas Squirrel & Jeffrey Fredrick

In Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss provides advice from his many years of negotiation - both as a former FBI hostage negotiator and as a negotiation trainer to business.

Part of Chris's advice is to treat every assumption you may have about another's intent as a hypotheses. A theory that needs to be tested and validated through the negotiation process.

When someone's life is on the line, it is simply too dangerous to assume you know what the hostage taker wants.

Chris's approach is very much in line with my advice on the Minimum Viable Product thinking;

  • Create a hypothesis
  • Test that hypothesis
  • Re-evaluate base on the result
  • Repeat

And while Chris's approach has been born out of life and death situations, the approach is just as valid in everyday life.

In their book Agile Conversations, Douglas Squirrel & Jeffrey Fredrick, advocate a very similar approach within businesses to achieve better outcomes.

From the books description:

"Today, software organizations are transforming the way work gets done through practices like Agile, Lean, and DevOps. But as commonly implemented as these methods are, many transformations still fail, largely because the organization misses a critical step: transforming their culture and the way people communicate"

In the book, they too highlight how damaging that our assumptions can bring to any conversation.

Maybe we are assuming that the development team don't want to make that change because they are lazy.

Maybe we are assuming that the security team are just trying to inflate their own self-importance when they insist on compliance to seemly arcane bureaucracy.

Maybe we are assuming that the sales team are only self-interested in liquid lunches and getting the most out of the expenses policy.

Entering conversations with those assumptions quickly lead into confrontation rather than working together to address the actual reason for the conversation in the first place.

And before you know it, the outcome of the conversation is based on which is able to bring more role power to the argument.

Most often, resulting in a poor outcome and bad feelings between all of the parties involved.

No wonder that Douglas Squirrel & Jeffrey Fredrick felt that so many organisations fail in their transformations when they can't even properly communicate.

Similar to Chris Voss, Douglas Squirrel & Jeffrey Fredrick put forward methods to validate assumptions.

A way of feeling out the other party.


  • Create a hypothesis
  • Test that hypothesis
  • Re-evaluate base on the result
  • Repeat

I think its fair to say that we all make assumptions about another's intent every day - more likely multiple times a day.

So if we are getting those assumptions wrong - and acting on them - how much damage are we doing to ourselves, our teams and our organisations.

Just think about the last meeting you where in.

Almost certainly you went in with assumptions pre-assigned to the other attendees.

You almost certainly interacted with those other attendees based on those assumptions.

How much misunderstanding occurred because of it?

How much has been lost due to it?

As leaders, this also ties back to the Theory X thinking I've discussed previously.

Theory X would have us assume that our teams are lazy and uninterested in their work.

They are actively trying to give the minimum for the maximum reward.

And of course, this is a gross over simplification of an individuals intents.

Its trying to make an assumption about an entire group of people - an almost universally incorrect assumption in my opinion - and then to manage them based on it.

Which is why Theory X thinking is such a poor management approach for anything other than the most dull and routine of tasks.

As leaders, to getting the best from our teams, it is so crucial that we don't assume those intents and manage our teams based on them.

But the same is true of our teams assuming our intents and acting based on them.

It can be just as disastrous to an organisation if our teams misinterpret our actions - and assign intent where it does not exist.

In episode 38, I talked about important it was to communicate the why of any difficult decision made during the Covid-19 crisis.

Yes you may need to make unpalatable decisions - such as redundancies or reduced working - but without clear communication of the intent, how do our teams know the boundary of those decisions.

Without a clear understanding of our intent - and of course a level of trust - does your teams interpret your actions as a sign that the business is no longer viable?

Do they interpret that its only a matter of time before they lose their jobs?

Do they assume that you are just using the crisis as an excuse to sweat the workforce?

Are you in danger of losing the entire workforce due to uncertainty and ill-will - all for the lack of clearly explaining your underlying intent?

The dangers of assuming a persons intent can cause damage in all parts of our organisation.

In this episode I talked about the dangers of assumption intent based on an individual actions.

I'd discussed how it has been covered in the books,

"Never Split the Difference - Negotiating if your life depended on it" by Chris Voss


"Agile Conversations" by Douglas Squirrel & Jeffrey Fredrick

And how both books advocated a process of:

  • Create a hypothesis
  • Test that hypothesis
  • Re-evaluate base on the result
  • Repeat

I know I have to remind myself to not make assumptions about another's intent - its such a baked in human characteristic - it be a difficult habit to shake.

Next week is the 50th episode of the "Better ROI from Software Development" podcast

Like the 25th episode, I will use it to give a quick recap the series so far.

If you're a listener I'd love to hear back from you. Please reach out and let me know if you are listening.

I'd love to include any feedback or comments in the 50th episode.

Thank you for listening.

I look forward to speaking to you next week.