Assume Positive Intent

Dr. Brene Brown is a New York Times best-selling author. In her book Dare to Lead, she notes that many people, leaders included, are missing a foundational skill of assuming the best in people. She encourages all of us to extend “the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.” This sounds great in theory, but it is often hard to put into practice.

Many of her examples are situations that could be applied here at the NIH and might resonate with trainees, including:

  • Your PI doesn’t get back to you and you think they’re wasting your time (don’t care about you)
  • Your PI/mentor cancels a meeting/discussion/experiments and you’re convinced they take you for granted (don’t appreciate you and/or think you aren’t a good enough scientist)
  • Your summer student/postbac ruins an experiment and you view them as hopeless
  • Your colleague asks you to do an additional experiment/presentation and you assume they are giving you too many responsibilities and offloading work on to you.

This can also happen during interviews.  Many times we meet with medical school applicants and hear that they felt flustered by basic questions which felt negative to them, such as:

Why are you here?
Why did you participate in X?
On your AMCAS it says _______, can you explain this further?


Rather than assuming the worst and viewing comments and behaviors as critical, practice a form of kindness – assuming that others are doing the best they can.  This, however, often requires a shift in your mindset.

This individual shift can often have larger effects. Within businesses and organizations, according to Seth Godin, “Kindness ratchets up. It leads to more kindness. It scales better than competitiveness, frustration, regret, revenge, merit, or apathy.”

The next time you feel frustrated, disappointed, or resentful of a colleague, family member, or friend, take a moment and consider that this person is doing the best they can. Likewise, in interview situations try to assume the best and not take often benign questions as slights against you. Try this out and let us know how this has worked for you by leaving a comment below.

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