Don't try to Teach a Pig to Dance: Lessons in Positive Intent

Updated: Jul 15

“Do you believe that people are doing the best they can?” This question is the litmus test for positive intent.

A colleague was complaining about an employee and I said to her “You know, he’s doing the best he can.” Not to mean that she should accept low performance, but to mean that if he is not the right person for this job, slamming him probably isn’t going to change that. She came back to me later and said “I heard what you said. He’s doing the best he can. We need to find him work where he can thrive.”

There’s an old saying:

Don’t try to teach a pig to dance. It frustrates you and annoys the pig.

—Author Unknown

The point here is, that pigs can’t dance. Yes, I see the irony of calling people pigs and assuming positive intent, but hang in there with me for a second. It’s a losing proposition for both you and pig. The pig is doing the best they can, being a pig. The pig is not a dancer.

Brené Brown says that when we start to realize people are doing the best they can, it can flood us with grief. There’s a realization that if people are doing the best they can, and we’re giving them a hard time, then we must be the asshole. We’re being abusive. Have I ever been an asshole like that? You betcha.

Boundary setting is key. If you are having trouble assuming positive intent, ask yourself, “What boundaries would allow me to be generous with my positive intent?”

I find that I have a negative reaction to meandering meetings that don’t have a clear objective. I have a personal boundary that I won’t attend any meetings that don’t have an objective stated in the invite. Of course, not everyone knows I have this boundary, so if there is no stated objective, assuming positive intent, I’ll ask.

Positive Intent doesn’t mean that low performance is ok. Just because you assume that people are doing the best they can, that doesn’t mean that the best they can is good enough. It can mean that the job is not for them or maybe something is blocking them from doing better. Dig in and problem-solve with them. Are they lacking knowledge? Negative feedback won’t work if they are doing the best they can.

Positive Intent means that motivation is not the answer. If people are doing the best they can, motivation won’t help. Looking for ways to motivate, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, is simply not the answer if the ability is not there. There is no one size fits all answer, it might be desire that’s lacking, it might be skill or it might be talent. I’m not detail-oriented, don’t give me a job that requires attention to detail because I’ll never be good at it.

Be kind to yourself. If you aren’t assuming positive intent about yourself, you can’t extend it to others. If you beat yourself up about mistakes, you’ll probably beat up others. You can’t give what you don’t have. Work on yourself first.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you realize that you haven’t been assuming positive intent. It can be a hard mirror to look into. Overcoming it is worth it.

Brain Twist: Try asking your team for a show of hands “Who believes that people in this team are doing the best they can?” If you have an espoused value of positive intent, and most people are not raising their hands, there’s misalignment between espoused and actual values. Dig into that with your team!

Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash



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