Are you assuming the worst? - Michelle Gibbings

Are you assuming the worst

Putting on someone else’s shoes never seems like an inviting task. They may be too big, too small, too smelly or just not to your liking. Many years ago, at a team offsite, this is precisely what my team colleagues and I were asked to do.

We had to take off our shoes and then find someone else’s to put on. I ended up with a big pair of workboots – way too big, too smelly and not to my liking! Of course, the task had a purpose. The activity’s goal was to get us thinking about how it feels when you are in someone else’s shoes. We talked about the initial emotional reaction and reflections on the importance of perspective.

Perspective-taking, as I’ve written about before, is essential. When you seek someone else’s perspective, you desire to understand where they are coming from – their assumptions, expectations, and motivations.

There are times, however, when you need more than perspective. Making progress and moving forward requires you to give the person involved the benefit of the doubt and to assume the best – not the worst.

Think about the person you find yourself judging the most. It may be a colleague, team member, your boss, or someone else.

None of us likes to think that we judge others, but most of us do. Most of us judge quickly, and as Professor Frank Bernieri of Oregon State University found, we assess people relatively quickly, without a lot of data. Often our assessment and judgement as to why someone has done something will miss the mark.

Think about yourself for a minute. It’s not likely you’d wake up in the morning and think, ‘Today, my goal is to make a crap decision’. Nor would you strive to do your worst at work and seek to harm (putting aside any clinical pathologies because that’s a whole different ballgame). In most situations, if you’ve made the wrong decision or done something poorly, there are likely to be reasons.

And yet, when the person whom you identified (as the one you judge the most) does something that annoys and frustrates you or doesn’t meet your standard, it’s likely that your assumption about their behaviour is negative. Perhaps, they’re lazy, incompetent, selfish, narcissistic or worse.

They may be all that and more, but does that assessment help or hinder how you interact with them?

Dr Brené Brown, in her book Dare to Lead, writes about how you can change how you approach issues and people by assuming they are doing their best. She writes, “The assumption of positive intent is only sustainable when people ask themselves this question: What boundaries need to be in place for me to be in my integrity and generous with my assumptions about the intentions, words, and actions of others?”.

Setting boundaries in this context is about clarifying what’s okay and what’s not okay, and why. So, take a moment to think about the person you identified earlier. Start by assuming that they are doing their best and consider what might be driving how they feel and behave?

  • Is there too much pressure from their boss? Is their workload unsustainable?
  • Are their peers challenging to work with?
  • Are there not enough resources in the team?
  • Are they set up for success in the role – i.e. right team, right resources, right skill level?
  • Are they relatively new to the role and still settling in?
  • What’s happening in their personal life? Are there challenges on the home front?
  • Has there been a recent change in their behaviour and if so, what could be triggering that for them?
  • Are there other things that are getting in the way of them being productive, happy and successful?

Many things can get in the way of a person being their best each day. What’s most helpful is seeking to understand the people you work with, flip the lens you are using so you assume the best (rather than the worst) and establish boundaries about how you work with them. Those boundaries help you and ultimately help them.

As Brené correctly notes, “When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated”.

Assuming a person is doing their best doesn’t mean you let them off the hook and don’t hold them accountable for their behaviour. Instead, you make decisions using a positive rather than a negative lens.

What lens will you use today?

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is bringing back the happy to workplace culture. The author of three books, and a global keynote speaker, she’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated. 

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