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Brene Brown

Brené Brown top tip: assume others are doing the best they can

Assuming the best in people is a vital skill for leaders

Brene Brown

“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.

The vulnerability researcher and leadership expert explains why we dig ourselves into a hole here.  

She says: 

  • 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.”

Like her TED Talk "soulmate" Simon Sinek, Dr Brown wants to see a bit less ego and a bit more bravery.


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.


See also: Where Brené Brown and Simon Sinek agree: Our deep-seated need to feel safe at work


She shares an exercise where she asks people to write down the name of someone who fills them with:

  • frustration,
  • disappointment
  • and/or resentment.


and then she proposes the idea that that person is doing the best they can.

One man doing an excercise with Dr Brown tried this and quickly concluded:


"....then I'm a total jerk"

She said 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 was a sellout, and Brené had people singing, and even dancing.

Don't miss tickets to our blockbuster virtual event Simon Sinek -The Infinite Game

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