Positive sentiment override: giving our colleagues the benefit of the doubt

November 9, 2006 by Jared Goralnick

Distance on a park bench. In the last day I’ve had some emotional reactions to business-related decisions–one by me and one by a peer.

I think I’ve learned my lesson, which is essentially twofold (and I hope is valid):

  1. People you regularly work with (partners, co-workers, clients) generally want something that will work for you as well as them; often they’re just not particularly adept at expressing their case
  2. When dealing with these people, in almost all cases it’s better to proceed under the assumption that intentions are good rather than react strongly when their expressions come off negative or threatening

In relationship psychology, John Gottman talks about the concept of positive sentiment override, or PSO. It basically states that the success of a relationship is directly related to how a couple interprets neutral events. The more likely a couple is to assume a positive interpretation of a loved one’s action (and the less likely they are to react negatively), the more healthy the relationship is. The greater the likeliness to interpret an event as positive, the greater the PSO. The less likely, the less PSO.

Sometimes in our businesses we forget about PSO. We don’t assume the best because we’re allowed not to. Let me explain.

In a relationship, at least in our contemporary Western society, equality is idealized and there is a perceived obligation for relationships to be maintained. In the workplace, while there is ideally balance and exchange, there is neither equality nor an obligation for the relationships to last. Business relationships can function this way because we need to continually seek out the right employees, partners, and clients. And at any time we’re allowed to dump one of them for another. While the stakes may be high, we’re allowed and expected to casually or directly end some business relationships.

But in the process, at least in the last day, I’ve seen where a little PSO would’ve helped us to see more clearly. In one case it was interpreting an email hastily and negatively. In another case it was questioning the motives of a business partner. In both situations the people involved reacted strongly and somewhat harshly to the other parties.

It would be naive and perhaps a little too forgiving to say that the other parties had been professional or appropriate in the way they’d gotten themselves into their positions. However, looking back, there’s no doubt in my mind that both parties had the all right intentions but just didn’t know how to express them. Neither party had done anything particularly egregious–they just approached business opportunities in a way that completely turned us off.

It didn’t become clear of the "lack of PSO" to either myself or my peer until discussing it with folks outside of the situations. But it did become clear. And I don’t think either of us were proud of our getting upset with the other party involved.

So I’m offering up the concept of PSO to you businesspeople out there, and I’m hoping that you’ll let it into your dealings with those who you work with… Good night.

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