I don’t read many management books. My reading time is generally at the end of the day, off the clock, on my couch with my dog, and I don’t want to read about work. But I have found serious management wisdom in places I wasn’t looking for it. Like parenting books. I found this quotation in Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting:
“Attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.”
Kohn is observing that when someone acts badly, we tend to assume they intended to act badly. We assume malice, when there could be more benign motivations for bad behavior. I went looking for the originator of that quotation and found Nel Noddings, a professor of education at Stanford. She focuses a great deal on care – caring about, and caring for, and how those relate to education and society.
I first read that quotation when my son was about three. If you haven’t spent much time with toddlers, let me tell you – calling two year olds “the terrible twos” is some sort of cruel joke, because three is two on steroids. You think you are past the tough stuff, and then your kid turns into a gremlin. So anyway, my sweet boy turned into a tantrum-throwing, friend-biting, time-out-defying hooligan and I went looking for help, and found it in Alfie Kohn’s book. The book helped me, that is – the threes pretty much have to run their course, like a fever.
But back to “attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.”
Why, exactly, should we attribute the best possible motive to anyone (especially little hooligans) when sometimes the worst possible motive is the real one? Because feeling misunderstood, or undeservedly accused, is toxic. It eats at you. It breeds resentment and anger. But feeling undeservedly trusted does the opposite. When someone gives you the benefit of the doubt you generally feel thankful, obligated, encouraged. Of course this doesn’t mean you should be blind to bad behavior – if you see your son sink his teeth into his buddy’s arm, you won’t believe him when he claims his “teeth just slipped.”
How does this apply to work? Pretty directly, actually. People do all sorts of things that annoy us at work, from sending snarky emails to leaving their stinky lunch in the microwave to turning in half-baked work product. Of all the possibilities for bad feelings and fractured relationships, I think the most culpable is email. It has all the dangers of texting and Snapchat, but with the permanence and importance of an old-school business letter. It’s not a happy marriage, but it is definitely a convenient one, and I will continue to use email as my primary office communication – but I’m trying to approach reading my email in a Nel Noddings frame of mind.
Imagine an email exchange between two colleagues, one more senior than the other. Junior has just submitted a report to Senior via email. She has worked damn hard on the report, mostly without input or help. She’s tired, and she wants the thing submitted and done. The next day Junior gets an email in response from Senior:
“Thanks, but I wish you had spoken to me – this misses the mark. Set up a meeting to go over revising content. I also noticed typos and you’ll need to copy edit before this can be submitted.”
How does Junior feel? Chastised. Humiliated. Like Senior doesn’t know how much work she put in, and doesn’t care. We know nothing about this hypothetical Senior colleague. She could, indeed, be trying to humiliate Junior. It happens. But there are other, less nefarious motivations consistent with the facts that explain Senior’s terse email. She might have been writing on her phone. She might have been responding quickly while doing other things. She may have simply not reread her own words to see how they would sound. If Junior responds in kind, assuming ill intent, and Senior intended no harm, Senior will now feel defensive and hurt. The cycle goes on. If Senior did intend to be hurtful, but Junior refuses to be baited, Senior’s hurtful words have lost their power. Either way, responding to the best possible motives consistent with the facts (rather than the worst) slowly makes us all better behaved in the workplace. Or the sandbox.
Which colleague am I in the imagined email exchange above? Both, of course. I have been both.