Workplace Wisdom

The Benefit of the Benefit of the Doubt

I hate to be in default or in the wrong, or to create a problem for someone. So I was quite distressed when I was scolded by a client’s administrator — not someone I usually work with — for being unresponsive and not sending in some materials.

Is Anything Really Wrong?

My first internal reaction was defensive justification: “Of course I sent it in!”

My second internal reaction was doubt: “Oh my! What if I didn’t send it in! What if I messed it up!”

But after some panicked checking, I realized that, in fact, the materials had been sent when they were supposed to be.

My third internal reaction: “Whew! Thank goodness. I thought I sent the stuff in. Why did she have to come on so strong?!?”

And what could have been going on at the admin’s end? Her tone was both annoyed and accusatory, as if what she really wanted to say was, “Why do you have to make a problem for me? Why can’t you manage the simplest thing, and take care of your work the way you should?”

Thank goodness I had the evidence that I’d actually submitted the materials. But even knowing that I was in the right didn’t change the fact that I was upset by the interaction. A “negative halo” remained for me and, sadly, it probably remained for the administrator as well.

Avoid the Blame Game

Was this just a technique problem? There were certainly nicer ways for her to have interacted with me, and she could also have checked with me earlier, before the apparent lack of materials became an emergency for her. But she didn’t, and her communication illustrated how our thinking can get in the way of good behavior.

When things don’t work for us, we often take for granted that it’s someone else’s fault. We project our own flaws onto them, and we assume that they think the way we do. If we’re inclined to be disorganized, then we’re likely to think that other people also don’t stay on top of things. That may have been the case with this admin, since several of my earlier experiences with her had exposed her tendency to wait until the last minute and then panic.

So when the admin hit her deadline, instead of looking carefully for the materials, she thought something like, “Okay, I don’t see it, which means Liz didn’t send it. What an annoying pain she is!”

Expect the Best

Wouldn’t it be better to look more deeply, and to assume the best of everyone from the outset?

No one who assumes the best of everyone would write to the other party, accusingly, IN ALL CAPS, that they’re making a big problem for us. Even if the necessary materials weren’t on hand, a person who assumes the best would express the concern carefully, perhaps asking for prompt help and attention instead of going on the attack. When our attitude is kinder and more curious, then we’re more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt and also communicate more graciously.

Are there situations where, in hindsight, you wish you’d given someone the benefit of the doubt, instead of assuming the worst? Or where you could have behaved more kindly, even if the other person was in the wrong? Thanks to your treating them better, they might feel grateful rather than resentful — and they might even learn to do better in the future.

At least I can give the admin the benefit of the doubt and consider the possibility that perhaps her crankiness was an isolated incident and the result of a particularly difficult day. And I can feel grateful that I got a blog out of the experience!

Onward and upward,

LK

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