Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt

Every architectural design, television commercial, management system or computer program, no matter how good, can be made better by further thought and effort. Such improvements usually come with negotiated compromise and concessions on the part of those involved. Costs and benefits are always assessed in the decision process. The trouble is that one can never be certain that the system proposed will work as designed or at the estimated cost. Future benefits are hard to predict with accuracy. Assumptions are often wrong. Skeptics are always ready to express their doubts.

Managers and supervisors who search for flaws or differences will find them. They will also antagonize and alienate those assigned to do the work. Mr. Draper was such a manager; the worst I ever worked for. He was, for the most part, intelligent and well-organized, but had one bad habit I found hard to live with. He never gave anyone the benefit of the doubt.

Mr. Draper questioned everything he heard. If someone said it was 2:00, he would look at his watch and say it was 2:05. If a subordinate submitted a report he would assume there was a grammatical or spelling error in it and search for it. If someone said, “These are the facts, Mr. Draper checked them out.” He was sure to find challenge in some way. When a production control specialist estimated that a machine part would take 30 minutes to produce, he would check the estimate by testing the assumptions it was based on. He made every visit to his office difficult.

Most of us who worked for him were professionals, unaccustomed to being treated that way. Later, when there was a management shake-up, not one peer or subordinate stood up for him to higher management. Joy reigned when he was replaced.

The new manager assumed that we were well-trained professionals who knew the difference between quality and inadequate work. Unlike Mr. Draper, who intimidated us and expended our creative energies on small stuff, his replacement gave us a greater “benefit of the doubt.” If the matter under consideration was important, we had to defend our position strongly. If not, he didn’t waste our time.

As a result, job satisfaction went up, as did productivity. By giving us the benefit of the doubt and the freedom to meet our own professional standards, the new manager benefited from superior performance and a better relationship than Mr. Draper could have dreamed possible.

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