Three Things Leaders Can Do To Earn the Benefit of the Doubt

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Three Things Leaders Can Do To Earn the Benefit of the Doubt

When I begin a new executive coaching engagement, my due-diligence process usually involves conducting focused interviews with a representative sample of my client’s peers, direct and indirect reports, other close associates, sometimes their spouse, and of course, their reporting senior.

One of the questions I ask is, “Does this person enjoy the benefit of the doubt with you?” The implications associated with the answers to this question are material. If a significant portion of the people within my client’s sphere of influence are unable or unwilling to give them credit for trying and adopting new behavior, our task becomes more difficult.

This same principle applies for each of us as leaders, and on a broader basis, within our businesses and other organizations as well.

As leaders, our ability to get people to embrace change, overlook our imperfections and errors, endure hardship, accept unpopular decisions and occasionally leap before looking is tied directly to whether or not we’re getting the benefit of the doubt.

And, lest there be any question, getting the benefit of the doubt is usually contingent upon having earned it.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when one’s appointment to a leadership position (at any level) carried with it positive expectations based on the belief that you probably knew what you were doing and could be trusted to have your teammates’ best interests at heart. No more, on either count.

As described in our book, Rebooting Leadership, many people entering the ranks of management today encounter a stiff headwind in the form of a “respect deficit” engendered not by their actions but by their job title. Let’s just call it “guilt by paygrade.”

If willing to do the work, we can nearly always gain the benefit of the doubt by taking the following steps:

1. Open the kimono – By behaving in a transparent and authentic manner on an everyday basis, leaders engender the trust that serves us so well when the wheels are coming off. This includes sharing (really sharing) both the big picture that describes our intended path, as well as our priorities. Unfortunately, if we save the information sharing until after the storm hits, our motives will become suspect, as well they should. 

2. Passenger or crew – Most of us tend to confer more benefit of the doubt when we are personally engaged with someone or with a particular idea. Rather than assuming that people will engage, we need to ask for the order – ask them to get involved, tell them what we need and confirm that they have really accepted.

There is a huge difference between being along for the ride (a passenger) and being a fully invested crew member. This plays out for us at work every day when we issue plans and directions that we assume will be followed.

3. Own up to problems – People don’t expect their leaders to be perfect. They know we’re human (OK, most of us are), and that once in awhile we’re going to really step in it, and when we do, the whole world is watching. How we behave in those moments of truth either builds our benefit of the doubt or depletes it. (Yes, we can actually earn trust and respect when we screw up.) People are watching for three simple things to happen:

For us to readily and voluntarily own up to the situation; to apologize meaningfully; and to remedy the matter as best we can. That’s it. It can be painful in the moment, but it beats the alternatives. 

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