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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 would ask 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.

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Sound familiar?

Brené Brown lesson: Assume the best

If any are familiar, it might be time to revisit the value of “assumption of positive intent.”

Dr. Brené Brown, the U.S. research professor who shot to Netflix/TED Talk stardom, says generously interpreting the intentions, words, and actions of others sounds straightforward.

But it’s a skill set that's not easy to learn, nor practice.

Brené Brown tip: Boundaries are the key

What helps you assume the best in others is this:

  • Setting and maintaining boundaries. 

She says in Dare to Lead that setting boundaries is the foundational skill of assuming the best in people.

And what is the fundamental belief underpinning the assumption of positive intent?

  • That people are doing the best they can.

While it works, boundary-setting is hard

It's surely the simplest lesson from this global leadership expert, but Dr Brown explains why we so often dig ourselves into a hole here.  

She says in Dare to Lead

  • Most people don’t have the skills to set boundaries;
  • Only 50% of people interviewed by her team believed others were doing the best they can.
  • The most compassionate and generous people are 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.”

Bravery is needed

Like the global pioneer of healthy workplaces, Patrick Lencioni, Dr Brown says she wants to see a bit less ego and a bit more bravery amongst business leaders.

She says:

  • Daring leaders work from the assumption that people are doing the best they can.
  • Leaders struggling with ego, armour, and/or lack of skills, do not make that assumption.
Patrick and Brene blog

(See also Patrick Lencioni and Brené Brown: Can team mates be too vulnerable with each other?)

A workshop exercise

In her leadership workshops, Brené Brown often runs 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 this scenario: You accept that this person is doing the best they can.

A complete switch from a leader

One man doing an excercise with Dr Brown tried this and had an outpouring of emotion.

"....then I'm a total jerk," he told the group.

He went on, “If he’s doing the best he can, I’m a total jerk, and I need to stop harassing him and start helping him.”

Leaders have to move to new tasks

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 tasks 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.

Turn the lens inward too

It 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.”

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