Leading with Benefit of the Doubt Versus Assuming the Worst

    Leading with Benefit of the Doubt Versus Assuming the Worst

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    Whether it’s a husband and wife, two brothers, or a direct supervisor and direct report, I can’t begin to count the number of clients I have coached over the years who have pointed their fingers at someone else and blamed them for doing something wrong. While there clearly are appropriate times to hold others accountable for their actions, that’s not what I’m referring to here. I’m referring to senior executives and family business leaders who regularly assume the worst about their team members and colleagues, attributing blame as if the offender has malicious intent and truly wants to bring harm to their organization.

    l don’t usually experience people in organizations who are evil or bad. I do encounter folks who have differing opinions about what’s “right” or perhaps use different rationale and logic, thus reaching different conclusions about what actions need to be taken. I also find that people aren’t always aligned and simply respond based on their different priorities.

    When we assume the worst in others just because we disagree with them or perhaps because they did something we wouldn’t have done, we destroy our chances for collaboration, and we make it nearly impossible to produce better results together. Instead, we create a predictable future with people pitted against each other, taking sides over what’s right and what’s wrong. This generally comes from very short-term thinking and/or from a single-minded view of the situation.

    Great leaders recognize this clash in styles and instead give their team members the benefit of the doubt before judging them for their actions. In fact, one of the greatest leadership lessons I ever learned was from Daniel Pink speaking to a packed audience of CEOs and business leaders. During a powerful keynote address covering three of his personal life lessons learned, Pink shared that “Questions trump answers.”

    Assuming the worst in others is grounded in believing you have all the answers. That you know it all. According to Pink, starting from a place of genuine curiosity and asking questions to better understand someone’s logic and reasoning always produces better results. Asking questions also enables you to explore alternative viewpoints and perspectives that you may not have considered.

    Giving someone the benefit of the doubt brings this even one step further. Starting from a place of believing everyone means well allows you to take ownership for what you may have done to contribute to the situation. For example, perhaps you didn’t provide clear directions when tasking someone to do something. Or maybe you didn’t explain your evaluation criteria for measuring success.

    If assuming the worst in people and their intentions is something you do, consider the following leadership strategies the next time you get frustrated by someone’s seemingly inappropriate actions or disappointing decisions –

    • Stop and take a beat – Responding in the moment from a place of anger or resistance isn’t going to further your relationship, so slow down and consider what you’re going to say before simply opening your mouth and saying it.
    • Ask questions, lots of questions – If we give everyone the benefit of the doubt, then their actions can’t be “wrong.” They may be misaligned or misdirected from what we’d expect, so ask clarifying questions to better understand why they made the choices they did.
    • Listen and re-evaluate your next move – Once we understand our differences, we can make more informed choices about what to do next. Our original approach may still be the right one, but perhaps it’s not and another way should be considered.
    • Explain your final decisions and clarify any next steps – Regardless of whether you shift approaches or not, be sure to explain your logic and final reasoning. Then clarify the very next steps you’ll be taking and especially that you might want others to take towards your shared objectives. That way, everybody will be on the same page, and there won’t be any misunderstandings or missed expectations moving forward.

    Do you ever fall prey to assuming the worst in folks instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt? Want to review some effective strategies to engage your team and be a more effective leader? Give me a call at 310.589.4600 or email me directlyand let’s discuss how best to address this together. You can also visit the Executive Coaching page of our website for more information and some key resources for enhancing your leadership skills.