Believing The Best

At We Are Mammoth, we’re focused on building better workplaces. Some of the time software plays a big role in the solution. All of the time, though, people are critical to improvements at work. I’d like to take a few minutes to advocate for a pretty simple step you can take toward creating a better workplace basically by being a better person.

The most generous explanation

Even the smartest, brightest people do dumb shit sometimes. They miss deadlines. Designers make bad UX decisions or hand off super sloppy PSDs. Developers introduce a dozen bugs into the codebase while trying to solve one. Mistakes happen. But your response to those events sets the tone for your workplace.

As a co-worker, you can assume that person’s an idiot or lazy. Or you can assume the best-case explanation for this behavior by believing the best in people. You can assume competence, hard work, and diligence. That designer probably has a super dope interaction planned that doesn’t show up in the PSD, so that’s why the UX is weird. And the files are messy because she’s been working 70 hours a week to get the product released. That developer is too busy building the product to be able to QA every piece of code, so it turns out he needs some support, not criticism. Until you know the facts or have had a chance to discuss it, why not assume the best?

Believing the Best

Believing the best in people is simple in concept and difficult in execution. In concept, I’m talking about finding gracious explanations for any person’s behavior within the bounds of reason and evidence – not naivety but generosity. In practice, I’m talking about what’s happened with iOS 7. I don’t know what went into completing that redesign, but I do know seven months isn’t nearly long enough to redesign an entire OS and a suite of apps. The fact that they completed it at all is exceptional. So let’s take a minute and believe the best instead of pasting the internet with rants. I’m believing they ran out of time and “done” was better than “perfect.” I’m believing they’re going to revisit it and improve upon the design. I’m believing there were intelligent, well-intentioned folks working their hardest to make iOS 7 awesome, and they’re eager to meet their own expectations.

David Foster-Wallace taps into this idea beautifully in his famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, This Is Water:

“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.”

A workplace that believes the best is empowering. Team members feel the trust. There’s no need to cover up or minimize mistakes; those mistakes can be readily acknowledged and improved upon without character attacks. When you’re not believing the best, you make a lot of assumptions about motives and intent. When you believe the best, you can focus criticism on execution, tactics, strategy. You can get further faster, without the additional baggage of emotional labor.

I say this because believing the best in the workplace and in life just ends up being better for you and for others. It promotes health organizationally and personally and frees you up to focus on things that matter.

{However, this is all with the caveat of “within the bounds of reason and evidence” as I mentioned earlier. Sometimes the evidence indicates negligence or incompetency. These are unfortunate circumstances because by and large they entail firing someone. But when you start from a place of believing the best, it’s easier to trust your motives and release folks at the right time for the right reasons.}