Assume the Good; Doubt the Bad

A few years ago I was leading a learning and development organization at Nike. One of my staff, Sue, was responsible for managing the Nike Professional Development Center, which included opening the Center each morning at 7:00. Sue was a salaried employee and averaged a 45-hour workweek.

One day I noticed that Sue left at 1:30 in the afternoon without saying a word. The next day, she left at 2:00. The next, 1:30 again. I started to get a little annoyed and, despite all previous evidence to the contrary, I began to wonder if Sue was slacking off. Unfortunately, I let this go on a few more days until another employee came to me to report that Sue was leaving early each day. Now I needed to handle the situation.

I called Sue into my office and said, “I noticed you have been going home between 1:30 and 2:00 every day for the last week. Help me understand.”

Notice the language. I did not say, “I noticed you have been leaving early.” That is a judgment. I simply said what I had observed. Note that a neutral tone is critical in this type of conversation.

Sue’s response: “I’m so sorry, John. I forgot to tell you that I have been coming in at 5:00 a.m. each day for the past two weeks to let our trainers into the building and get them set up. I let Julie (our admin) know, but I forgot to tell you.”

Can you imagine how that conversation would have gone if I had assumed the bad—that Sue was slacking off and leaving early? What impact would that have had on our relationship and the trust we felt toward each other? Instead, I assumed the good— that there had to be a reasonable explanation for her behavior.

The next time you encounter behavior that does not fit what you expect—an unfriendly grocery clerk, a colleague who doesn’t return your call, a senior manager who passes you in the hall and doesn’t say “hi”—assume the best. There’s a good chance that the clerk is having a difficult day, the colleague has been so swamped they have not listened to their voice messages, and the senior manager was distracted and didn’t see you.

Give people the benefit of the doubt as you would have them do to you—a good relationship may hang in the balance.

About the author:

John Hester is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies.  You can read John’s posts on the second Thursday of every month.

6 thoughts on “Assume the Good; Doubt the Bad

  1. Pingback: Assume the Good; Doubt the Bad « Arshad Parvez

  2. Thanks for sharing John. Assuming the positive of others prevents you from compromising your own personal positivity. I struggle with finding those “neutral” words that you mentioned. Any suggestions on how to align my words with my sincere mental attempts to assume the positive?

  3. As John did, the interesting thing is to “define” the observed facts without trial (en that way is neutral) most of the times there is a reasonable explanation, well-meaning, in others it may not, but will give you information to change or improve something, what is clear is that we don´t have information previously, it´s interpretation, our first attitude must be trust.

  4. Pingback: Assume the Good; Doubt the Bad |

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