Don’t Assume I Can’t Handle It

Trusting others to know what’s best for them.

Managers are required to make decisions that affect the careers of their direct reports. It just goes with the territory. But all too often, with the best of intentions, we default to our assumptions instead of consulting with the individual in question.  It’s scary how often this happens and how many of us are guilty without realizing it.  Even worse, you’d think that gender bias would no longer figure into the formula. But it does.

Case in point: you assume that because a woman is pregnant that this isn’t a good time for her to take on a promotion. In fact, it might not be, but if she’s earned your consideration, hasn’t she earned the right to weigh in on her own career? Likewise, I’ve heard managers assume that, because an employee’s spouse has a thriving career, they’d be reluctant to take on a job that would require a move. Again — why is it so hard to ask?  Maybe they’d like to move closer to relatives. Maybe they’re ready for a change. Or they can arrange to work remotely. The point is — you don’t know, because you didn’t ask.

As managers, we must make daily decisions about how to best deploy, motivate and reward employees. That doesn’t make it our right to presume we know best when it comes to personal decisions in their lives. Engage the employee in the discussion about a future opportunity and see if something can be worked out. Don’t take it off the table until they say “no, thank you.”

Oddly enough, we sometimes do the same thing with clients. We may have a new product or service that we know they’d put to good use, but we don’t make the offer because we assume they can’t afford it. Or that they’ll resent the sales pitch.  Or even that they are too traditional to appreciate the value of the new technology you are reluctant to offer them.

Relationships are built on trust and it begins with us. If we don’t trust people enough to ask them to consider decisions that affect their own lives, how can we expect them to trust us? Rational people make rational decisions. Don’t presume; ask.

You’re Not Fooling Anybody

I’m sometimes perplexed and a bit put off when I see people making a big show about climbing the corporate ladder. You probably know the type—they tend to favor an elbows-out approach that blocks anyone else who might be trying to ascend. These are the people who load their plates with as much high-profile work as possible. They try to be on every committee and on the agenda of every committee meeting. And all too often, they leave the real work to be accomplished by the competent people who keep their head downs and just keep doing the heavy lifting.

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Here’s a tip: we see through you.

This kind of behavior may have worked in the Mad Men era. The notion of “grabbing visibility” may even have been classic business training back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But it doesn’t work in today’s business climate. Companies with a strong culture value a spirit of humility. Everybody works hard—that’s just how it goes. And we’d rather work side-by-side with people we can trust – people who bring the same level of integrity we do – than with shameless posers.

No doubt, there are still companies out there that lack a strong culture and that reward opportunistic showboating. But I can’t believe those companies, or the people they hire, are going to be viable for much longer. I’m lucky enough to stay in touch with a number of business leaders in a variety of sectors, and no one I talk to is impressed or fooled by ladder-climbers. In fact, today’s business leaders are just naturally more inclined to give important assignments to those ‘strong silent types’ who consistently deliver great work.

Maybe, as leaders, we recognize our younger selves in today’s hard-working heroes. And maybe, just maybe, we still resent those who buzzed around, talked a good game, but didn’t accomplish much. Don’t be that guy.

Judge by intentions, not actions

This is a bit counter-intuitive, because we’re taught to judge people not by what they say, but by what they do. All well and good. But if we take time to consider what someone intended to do, outside of the actual consequences, it helps us know how to respond.

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One way to look at this is to stop and think about how we judge our own actions, and apply the same level of understanding to other people. For example, if we crash into someone in the park while trying to catch a Frisbee, that person may think we’re an inconsiderate jerk, but we’d be indignant if they didn’t accept our apology. After all, it was just an accident – we didn’t mean to bowl them over. And if we proceed make amends – and replace the soda we knocked over – they will probably give us a pass.

Apply this to the business world. We need to find a way to judge people by their intentions – and then deal with the consequences of their actions as needed. Grudge-holding, back-stabbing, passive -aggressive behavior – it’s a colossal time-suck. It drains our energy. So much of this daily drama could be quickly diffused if people would just take a minute to consider what the other person intended. Were you really left off an invite list because of a conspiracy to undermine your authority, or was it a simple administrative error? Is someone challenging your opinion because they don’t like you, or because they want to ensure the best outcome for the team? This is especially critical in multinational businesses, where cultural differences can easily cause people to lose their trust or, even worse, lose face, where no harm was intended.

When we learn to rationalize the intentions of others as well as we do our own – when we become more objective about judging intent vs. behavior, we will be better (and happier) employees, managers, co-workers, parents, children and spouses. We will deal with consequences more effectively. And if this honest scrutiny leads to the rare conclusion that someone really is behaving badly, we will be able to measure our response appropriately, instead of lashing out in anger. That’s what leaders do.