Ditching ‘assume good faith’ as a way to talk about respect

Time to fix problems at the source rather than tolerate awful behavior.

Ditching ‘assume good faith’ as a way to talk about respect
Photo by Mark Eder / Unsplash

In 2015 I started teaching the lean principle of respect for people using these 4 pillars:

  1. Develop skills; give authority.
  2. Assume good faith.
  3. Create space to share ideas, problems, wisdom.
  4. Show how today’s work fulfills the organization’s purpose.

It’s #2, ‘Assume good faith,’ that I’m no longer comfortable with. For years, I even illustrated it with a particular Aristotelian example I now see as actively harmful.

Two things I feel are important to communicate

  • The idea that people are conditioned to behave in certain ways, and that there are causes for what people do. This is true whether the behavior is something we wish there was more of (e.g. thoughtful collaboration) or something we desperately need there to be less of (e.g. discrimination, cruelty).
  • The reflection that causes and conditions of individual behavior run super deep. All of the hurt in the entire world is contained therein. We all move through the same process of dependent origination. Most of that motion occurred across lifetimes, before everybody came to work today. And/but what we can still do today is try to produce better conditions.

What I regret

  • I regret recommending that people ‘assume good faith’ as a way of enacting respect for people. Why? Because it assigns extra work to the person dealing with whatever trash someone else has handed them. It opens a door through which a bunch of sexist and otherwise awful shit enters. It tolerates behavior and hides problems that are intolerable.

A huge part of the project of lean is to fix problems at the source. The exhortation to ‘assume good faith’ sets us up to do precisely the opposite.

I am grateful for “I could not care less about your positive intent,” a short, illuminating article from Lauren Howard that absolutely clarified the situation.

And I’ll keep working at a better articulation of a principle I believe in, but have only clumsily expressed.