Benefit of the Doubt

Take another look at what you see. It may not be the real thing.

Photo courtesy of Tobias-Zils

Photo courtesy of Tobias-Zils

During a recent strategy definition session with a leadership group of about 25 people, most of us were tasked with coming up with specific action steps for a goal that was randomly assigned. I didn't like the one assigned to me. I thought I could do better with another goal, which was assigned to someone else on the leadership team. I made this known to Susan*, the facilitator and she asked me to do the best I could with what I have.

About an hour later, I had to present the specific action steps I came up with, to the rest of the group. As I began to speak, Susan suddenly started laughing. I was taken aback and wondered what was going on. Without any clue as to what just happened, I proceeded with my presentation. At the conclusion of it, I just had to ask the question because I was still intrigued at the sudden outburst of laughter earlier.

Susan explained that as I started to speak, I gave her the finger; and that it’s probably because I had wanted another goal to work on. I was shocked! I have never given anyone any kind of finger, neither do I intend to. I need every one of my fingers!

While I couldn't tell what my fingers were doing with the hand gestures I had during my presentation, I knew that I didn't intentionally give her “the finger”. After the meeting, Susan continued to make fun of me and insisted that I gave her a finger. A few weeks later, she finally admitted that she knew I wouldn't do that.

In the February 2013 blog titled, Oblivious, I wrote about how we may not realize the effect of our behaviors on others. This situation got me thinking about how we see the behavior of others, and how that in turn, affects the way we behave as leaders.

In his book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen M. R. Covey stated that “while we tend to judge ourselves by our intent, we tend to judge others by their behavior”. When we see a particular behavior in other people, we quickly jump to conclusions about what their intentions are. The focus on, and the attribution of motive or intent is almost immediate.

While behavior is usually the manifestation of motive, that’s not necessarily the case all the time. This is the case with my “finger-giving” example. That’s where knowing people well enough comes into play. Because Susan knew me fairly well, she knew that I couldn't have been giving her the finger, even though my behavior appeared that way. But what about people we don’t know quite well? That’s where it gets dicey, and where our own values, background and experience come into play.

Have you ever been around someone who immediately ascribes negative motives to the behavior of others?

He’s doing that because he’s just a mean person!

I've seen a few like that and my response is usually, “why don’t you give the person the benefit of the doubt?” Since you may not know what’s going on with an individual at a particular time, it’s always difficult to ascribe the right intent to their behavior.

We must be careful how they judge other people. We must be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, especially when we observe behaviors that may be a little off. We would do well to recognize the possibility of good intent or motive in others, despite their observable behavior.

There are times when we actually project our own intent on others’ behaviors. When we observe a behavior, we unconsciously latch on to the motives that could make us behave in a similar manner; and project this on others. As fallible humans, we have to realize our tendency to do this, and work on ensuring that we don’t.

By deciding to look beyond the behavior of others, we can encourage and motivate them. This is possible when we project a positive intent on those behaviors and give them the benefit of the doubt.

Assume their intentions are pure, until proven otherwise.

*Names have been changed