Benefit of the Doubt

Last Friday I went to the post office to get a passport. While the person helping us was efficient, I felt she wasn’t courteous and I found myself ranting to my husband in the car about the lack of customer service. His response was that perhaps we’ve been too conditioned to expect everyone to smile all the time, and he pointed out that she’d done exactly what we needed her to do.

Something about the encounter was still bugging me as we returned home, and then it dawned on me. Perhaps he was right. And perhaps I was the one with the problem. Because as I thought about our experience more, I remembered that at the end she turned to me and said “Happy Mother’s Day” (we had our 8 month old with us). I truly appreciated that gesture and told her “Thank you!”

As I started reasoning with myself, I realized that this experience was in line with something I’ve been reading about lately: the idea of giving others the ‘benefit of the doubt’. It is so easy to be in our own little bubble of righteousness, especially while driving or going to the store. And even easier to think everyone else is wrong.

But lately I’ve been working on improving my attitude toward others for multiple reasons. First, I think negativity spreads and can infect others and ruin your day. Second, I think we too often take things personally when it’s not about us at all. And last, I feel that focusing on what someone did ‘wrong’ doesn’t help fix anything and can actually be detrimental.

Why would it be bad to focus on someone’s failings, particularly in a work situation? After all, aren’t we supposed to give criticism and help people improve? I couldn’t quite figure that out until I read this Harvard Business Review article on feedback and how we’re going about it all wrong.

It again reiterates the idea of focusing on the positive, instead of the negative, and how our own inherent biases inhibit us from giving reliable feedback. Because our feedback is based on our personal understanding of many different things, it is just an opinion and not objective fact. And by calling out someone’s weaknesses, we often make them feel helpless instead of empowered. It is much better to emphasize what went well and why.

          “Focusing people on their shortcomings doesn’t enable learning; it impairs it.” – from Harvard Business Review

I am not insinuating that we practice toxic optimism or gloss over mistakes (nor is the article suggesting that). What I am saying is that maybe we should try to give people the ‘benefit of the doubt’ when things go awry and that we should focus more on what was excellent about their work. How do we do that? In addition to the Harvard article, here are some other simple ideas.

Even if it doesn’t end up creating world-changing improvement from colleagues or employees, it could improve someone’s day. And isn’t that alone worth it?

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