Ryann Wayne is the Chairwoman of The Frontier Project Group of Companies and the CEO of Frontier Academy, a fast-growth professional development firm that transforms Learning & Development programs inside companies around the world.

If you lead a team, run a company or manage a group, you probably have the same dream I do. You dream of employees that are all in, fully engaged, proactive. You imagine a world in which you are looped in when problems first arise--rather than having to clean up a crisis later. You crave candid interaction with team members who will share concerns openly, and who ask for help when they need it.

If that's your dream, this here's your hack to get there: Give your people the benefit of the doubt.

Simple tactic? You bet. Start to use it and see it yield substantial results.

Try it out. Imagine your most frustrating employee or team member. Now imagine giving them the benefit of the doubt: assume there might be a valid explanation for their behavior. You might be thinking, "They don't deserve it. They're always missing deadlines." Or: "They're totally disorganized." Or: "They're always undermining my leadership." Insert your own emotional response here.

Those excuses are easy to come by--small defenses that provide cold comfort. But ask yourself: what do you win by not trying this hack? Some sense of satisfaction that you've identified your employees' weaknesses? A scapegoat strategy that blames your team for not having the capacity to change? Do any of these get you closer to the dream?

Instead, what if, every time an employee disappointed you, underperformed, or under-delivered, you said to yourself: "I bet there is a really good reason this happened." That change in assumption is the mindset shift in miniature. Follow it up by scheduling some time with that person, privately, to inquire. Use an open question like, "I was hoping you might be able to fill me in on what happened back there. Can you share your perspective?"

Giving the benefit of the doubt isn't difficult--unless your ego is in the way, of course. Quiet that voice for a moment and you'll be surprised at what you can hear. What if the person who frequently misses deadlines can't meet them because they're waiting on information from another department that they can never get in time? What if their lateness is a product of being stretched beyond capacity, and they're drowning? What if the perceived threat to your leadership is valuable devil's advocacy that's simply poorly channeled because there is no other means of feedback?

Whatever the situation, if you're not open to listening to their side, you'll never discover the real problem--and you'll never be able to fix it. And you'll never be able to listen to their side if you don't practice giving them the benefit of the doubt. The benefit of the doubt opens up space for exploration, and creates a chance for you to coach them toward improvement. Without this space, you'll both end up stuck exactly where you are, friction will be institutionalized, and eventually you'll watch productivity plummet and talent walk. And the status quo of mistrust and insufficient communication on your team will perpetuate.

Employees who know you're giving them the benefit of the doubt begin to change their behavior. Why?

  • You've created a separation between the situation and your reaction, enabling yourself to respond appropriately and thoughtfully. Your employees will notice.
  • You've created a situation that signals the employee's experience is valuable.
  • You'll have enlisted your employee to help you solve a problem, creating a sense of ownership and investment.
  • You'll have learned something about your team, your processes, and your organization that will help you solve future problems.

The more you do this, the more this style of engagement will be replicated, and you'll notice your employees collectively responding in a positive way. Eventually, they will start extending the same generosity to you. And then you know you've created a truly collaborative and engaged team.

There is so much more potential among our teams than we consistently tap into; we miss out on enormous creativity and productivity when we lose the human connection with our employees. By resolving to give your employees the benefit of the doubt in each interaction, you will create the environment that empowers your team to be the best they can possibly be.