Benefit of the Doubt

May 24, 2009 by
Filed under: People, Teamwork 

When I start to work with a new team, whether it is with a new group for a training session, a new client site where I will be working for a period of time, or that client brings a new employee into the fold, I tend to start with the assumption that everything is good out of the gate. My initial trust is pretty high, and I have high expectations that we’re going to get along well and do good work together. I tend to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, even if people have tried to warn me in advance.

This starting point is based on all my experience, that intrinsically people are there to collaborate effectively, that we can all work in a manner congruent to our own needs and the needs of the team at the same time. There might be collisions from time to time, but we almost always find a way to work things out. In all my years of working on teams and consulting with groups, this has overwhelmingly been the case.

There have been very few instances where this expectation has not held true. Even when most people would say that the writing is on the wall, I tend to try to make things work, try to find that common path where we can all work together happily and productively. Sometimes we find that path, and very occasionally, we don’t.

Looking back over about a 30 year career, I’m hard-pressed to fill the fingers of one hand with instances where we just couldn’t come to a common understanding. I’ve had a couple of bosses that I have butted heads with to the point where I have chosen to leave, and a couple of clients where we have parted ways because it was clear that I could not provide any value. This was not because I had none to provide (indeed, I saw both as significant opportunities for improvement), but because they would not accept the data they were being presented with, data from within their own organization.

As I go through this, I come to the understanding that this is the crux of the matter. I’ve had a few clients that could not see the clear objective data that was presented to them, but rather chose to hold doggedly to their own view of the world, despite what was happening around them. It is no accident that the data was telling them something they did not want to hear: something that, if acknowledged, would suggest that they weren’t accomplishing what they should be. One of them threw me out for exposing their employee’s viewpoints, I fired the other for not allowing their employee’s viewpoints to make it to the desks of the executive.

Looking back to those bosses I’ve parted ways with, there are similarities in these stories as well. In both cases, results in the organization were not reflecting their expectations. In one case there was significant push to take any contract, whether or not we were qualified for the engagement. In the other, there was an assumption that numbers fabricated as promises could be used as estimates to get reasonable work done (have any of you run into that dance before?).

In all cases, 4 instances over the past 30 years, that benefit of the doubt has been washed away only when there was an absolute refusal to accept any other view of reality, regardless of what the data said, regardless of the fact that they were the only ones engulfed in their view of reality. Their view was supported by viewpoints and perceptions, not objective evidence. We agreed to disagree, and we parted ways.

It appears I may be approaching a 5th instance of this situation these days. I’m working with someone that absolutely believes those around him have no integrity, and it is increasingly difficult to find a way to engage with him fruitfully. It is a situation where all parties have invested heavily in the team’s success, yet it remains tenuous as one person refuses to give anyone else the benefit of the doubt. All behaviour is being perceived as lies and attacks.

There are two spins that currently exist in this situation: that held by one person, and that held by everyone else. When that situation exists, it is usually worthwhile for the individual to reconsider the view held by the masses. While there is a slight possibility that the one person’s view is correct, I’d want to see substantial objective evidence before I could be swayed in that direction.

I’ve already invested significantly to try to make this work, without any pre-conceived notions or biases. I have carefully listened and mediated between all parties, and worked to avoid taking sides (and to prevent others from doing so). I expect that in most companies, the issue would have been resolved much earlier by breaking up the team (and it is an easy guess to figure out how that would have taken place). I’m holding on to that benefit of the doubt as I always do, yet I am seeing none provided in return.

These situations are always a struggle, and this one is proving to be no exception. If there is no change soon, though, I will have to let go. The benefit of the doubt can be exhausting to hold on to. – JB


2 Responses to “Benefit of the Doubt”

  1. Stewart on May 24th, 2009 11:05 pm

    It strikes me that with all your experience not only is the individual doubting all those around him, he is also doubting you. Is this a case of reflection in that he actually doesn’t trust himself either?

    Maybe if he was reassured that his decision-making was generally good he would have the confidence to be more receptive to the views of the masses? It’s very much a long shot, but then maybe it’s easier for an outside to maintain the benefit of the doubt than someone a bit closer?

  2. Jim Brosseau on May 24th, 2009 11:11 pm

    Good question, Stewart. It is certainly true that being a bit removed allows one to be more objective, and the question about the mirror has come up already here. Definitely things to consider as we try to progress in this situation. Thanks for the comments…

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