THE CEOs’ CORNER: Assume Positive Intent!

Fri, September 21, 2018 11:31 AM | Deleted user


September, 2018

Jed Daly

Assume Positive Intent!

Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, when asked what the most important leadership advice she had been given was, she said, “Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent.”  Nooyi, who announced last month she was stepping down in early October, had a 12 year run at Pepsi, almost 2.5 times the average CEO tenure of 5 years, and is one of the few, if not the only woman of color running a Fortune 500 company.

We all look at life through different lenses . . . lenses that filter what we see, what we hear, what we believe.  Psychologists have now identified more than 50 unconscious biases that pervade our thinking, among them:

  • Ø  Confirmation bias (we give more attention and credibility to facts that support what we already believe and ignore and discredit facts that don’t);
  • Ø  Loss aversion bias (we will risk more to avoid losing what we already have than we will to gain something of equal value);
  • Ø  Transference bias (the unconscious tendency to react emotionally to someone based on whether they resemble someone from our past.  If someone you just met resembles a high school bully, you will likely engage less enthusiastically with your new acquaintance than if he or she resembles your best friend, even if you haven’t thought about the bully for 20 years); 

The list goes on . . .

So, in a very real way, each one of us is continuously creating his or her own version of the reality around us based on the lenses through which we look at life.  Put another way, every time an event happens, we have a choice about the reality that we create in our heads about what is actually happening. 

If that event is a mistake made by one of your staff members, you might create the “reality” that this person is incompetent, ignorant, stupid, what have you.  That is your choice.  There are other “realities” you could create: for instance, curiosity (what is it about your behavior, systems, communication and policies that led to the mistake?) or coaching (What caused the mistake?  What can be learned from the mistake? What didn’t the employee take into consideration that they should have? )

“Assume positive intent” comes from the principle that most people aren’t deliberately trying to create negative results; in fact, the reverse – they are usually trying for a positive outcome.   When there’s a problem or issue, it’s worth investing time in exploring the other person’s reality to find out which lens you are looking through that is preventing you from seeing what they are seeing.  Nooyi apparently found that she got better results from the people around her when she started out assuming the best.

This approach has transformed the lives of some of the CEOs I work with.  I recommend balancing “Assume positive intent” with “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” 

What are you assuming?

A  CEO for more than 25 years, Jed Daly works with the CEOs and senior executives of more than 40 Los Angeles companies as a Vistage Chair.  Vistage is the world’s leading CEO membership organization, with more than 22,000 members in 20 countries who run companies with annual revenues ranging from $1 million to over $18 billion. Mr. Daly chairs two of the 50 Los Angeles based Vistage Boards, and will shortly be forming a third Board in the San Gabriel Valley. His 40 members make better decisions, become more profitable AND work less, so they can spend more time with their families, do the things they love and have better personal and professional relationships. For additional posts and content, please link here.  He can be reached at or

San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership

4900 Rivergrade Road, Suite B130, Irwindale, CA 91706

Phone: (626) 856-3400    Fax: (626) 856-5115


Office Hours: Monday–Thursday 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.,
Friday 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software