Leadership Wisdom: Give the Benefit of Your Doubt

We often think that giving the benefit of the doubt is a good habit: It means we assume the best of intentions when others do or say something that we don’t like, or when their actions go against what we’ve agreed to. Team members will often show their loyalty by agreeing in principle to never doubt each others’ best intentions. This is a good habit for those who are quick to criticize, quick to judge intentions as evil, quick to get defensive.

The shadow side of this way of operating is naivete. It’s optimists who blindly refuse to see the negative or the “ugly” side of a situation. It’s a form of ignoring our gut instincts to protest, protect or disengage, and too much of it can walk us blithely right into danger.

If you tend to wait too long to act, to hang onto your optimistic forecasts, to give someone too many chances, you might want a counterbalance habit that is more assertive.

Change it up. Try “Give the Benefit of Your Doubt.”  This means you openly share your felt sense of discomfort, your worry, your underlying concern. Instead of dismissing your instinctive, negative reaction, you own it. From this place of irritation and frustration, you check your perspective for validity.

You do this by being curious and by asking others to help you determine what’s going on. Sometimes your doubts will be unfounded, but often they will prove to be a reliable early-warning-signal – especially if you are an industry expert.

“I can feel myself getting frustrated. I can’t see the changes we agreed to in this latest iteration of the report. What am I missing?”

“Hang on for a moment. I’m noticing that I’m feeling annoyed at being interrupted mid-sentence by you. What’s going on here?”

“I have many doubts about the feasibility of this plan, rapidly rising to the surface. And that’s making it hard for me to concentrate with an open mind on what you are saying. Do you think we could slow down and speak about that, before you get too far down the path and way ahead of me?”

Or simply, “Wait. Something isn’t right here. What’s going on?”

When you can wake up to your own negative reactions, your fears and your doubts, you can bring that part of your experience to the present moment. And that will benefit both you and the people you want to engage with.

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