Assuming the best in people is a vital skill for leaders
“I know my life is better when I work from the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can.” – Brené Brown, Dare to Lead
Brené Brown asks if you've ever experienced one of these?
- Your client doesn’t ring you back, and you think they’re a time-waster.
- Your friend cancels a bike ride, and you're convinced they take you for granted.
- Your sales manager loses an account, and you view them as hopeless.
- Your colleague asks you to pay the bill, and you assume they’re a tightwad.
Sounds familiar? Then, it might be time to revisit the value of “assumption of positive intent.”
Dr. Brené Brown, TED top 5 speaker and author of five No. 1 New York Times best-selling books including Dare to Lead, says extending the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others sounds straightforward, but it’s a skill set that's not easy to learn, nor practice.
What is the foundational skill of assuming the best in people? she asks in Dare to Lead.
Answer: Setting and maintaining boundaries.
What is the fundamental belief underpinning the assumption of positive intent?
Answer: That people are doing the best they can.
(Brené Brown at 2019 sold out event in Australia for The Growth Faculty)
The vulnerability researcher and leadership expert explains why we dig ourselves into a hole here.
- Most people don’t have the skills to set boundaries;
- Only 50% of people that her team interviewed believed others were doing the best they can.
Dr Brown says the most compassionate and generous people she’d interviewed in her career were the most boundaried.
She writes: “It turns out that we assume the worst about people’s intentions when they’re not respectful of our boundaries: It’s easy to believe that they are trying to disappoint us on purpose.”
Instead, we should set boundaries....and then, says another behaviour expert, be kind.
Kindness will reward us because it "scales" says multi-bestselling author, blogger, and TED Talk sensation Seth Godin.
"[Kindness] scales better than competitiveness, frustration, pettiness, regret, revenge ...or apathy," says Seth Godin.
He says kindness ratchets up. It leads to:
- More kindness;
- Trust and openness;
- Truth and enthusiasm
- Patience and possibility.
It's not just kindness to assume positive intent, it's the sign of a good leader.
Dr Brown says daring leaders work from the assumption that people are doing the best they can; whereas leaders struggling with ego, armour, and/or lack of skills, do not make that assumption.
She shares an exercise where she asks people to write down the name of someone who fills them with:
- and/or resentment.
and then she proposes the idea that that person is doing the best they can.
"....then.....I'm a total jerk" - was one man's response on doing this exercise.
He explained to the group: “If he’s doing the best he can, I’m a total jerk, and I need to stop harassing him and start helping him.”
Dr. Brené Brown writes that asking leaders to assume others are doing the best they can moves them from "pushing and grinding on the same issues" to the more difficult task of:
- teaching their team,
- reassessing their skill gaps,
- reassigning them,
- or letting them go.
“It’s a commitment to stop respecting and evaluating people based solely on what we think they should accomplish, and start respecting them for who they are, and holding them accountable for what they’re actually doing,” she says.
Simon Sinek, in his new book The Infinite Game, says building a culture of trust means acting in a way that is worthy of that trust.
"True trusting relationships require both parties to take a risk. Like dating or making friends, though one person has to take a first risk to trust, the other person has to reciprocate at some point if the relationship has any chance of succeeding."
That might mean taking a risk on assuming others are doing the best they can.
And, becoming trusted friends with ourselves.
When we’re overwhelmed and struggling, turning those positive assumptions towards ourselves means saying:
“I’m doing the very best I can right now.”
The Growth Faculty July 2019 event with Dr Brené Brown, author of five No. 1 New York Times best-selling books; Rising Strong, Daring Greatly, Braving the Wilderness, The Gifts of Imperfection and Dare to Lead was a sellout, and Brené had people singing, and even dancing.