Assuming Best Intentions

“Are you the type of person who trusts others first until they prove untrustworthy? Or, do you distrust others first, until they prove trustworthy?

In all my years of working with executive teams, “Assuming Best Intentions” has been a consistent theme for each team when crafting their ground rules. When a team needs to call out “Assuming Best Intentions” as an explicit ground rule, that team usually scores very low on trust and team members often distrust each other.

Now, trust is a tricky subject. Trust is usually at the core of many problems, but it tends to be layered and buried deep underneath several other surface issues and concerns. For example, leadership issues are often a symptom of distrust among team members. This is true not just in business, but also in relationships with significant others, among families, and among friends as well.

When we speak of trust or distrust, most people would assume that we are all talking about the same thing, “I just don’t fully trust that person.” However, that is usually not the case. In order to fully understand trust and trustworthiness, I am breaking it down into four types or the “4 C’s of Trust”: Character, Competence, Consistency, and Critique.

Character trust is when you trust or distrust a person’s nature based on his or her character. If you don’t have character trust for somebody, you simply do not trust this person at his core. You do not trust that this person won’t hurt you, intentionally or unintentionally. You do not trust this person to protect you when it is dangerous or create a safe environment for you.

You may find it okay to work with or to be associated with people that you don’t have character trust for, either because you didn’t hire them directly, or because you have at least one degree of separation between you and them. You don’t seek them out to be your trusted friends because you don’t trust them to be good people. In many cases, you are just putting up with them for now, due to the circumstances.

The next type of trust is Competence trust, the trust in the competency of another person. Competence is the ability to do a job well. When you sit in a passenger seat of a spouse’s or good friend’s car, and his or her driving makes you a bit nervous, your issue with the driver is competence trust, not character trust.

The third type of trust is Consistency trust. You can usually expect people to do whatever they are consistently doing. For example, if a friend is consistently late to appointments, you can trust that this same friend will be late to your next get together. If you have a family member or a friend that always says or does the wrong thing at the wrong time, you will soon come to expect that this person will do or say inappropriate things at inappropriate times. This type of trust also causes you to become surprised when that person does the right thing at the right time. I once had a client that was very demanding. When he called me for new business, I always asked myself if I wanted to work with him at that given time. I trusted his consistency in making unrealistic and unreasonable demands, and asking me to meet those expectations.

Trusting that people will stick to their patterns is a pretty safe bet (see pattern spotting). However, when people are inconsistent in their behaviors, it makes them much more difficult to trust. When someone only sometimes does what he or she promised, you soon realize you cannot count on that person to deliver. You have no consistency pattern to trust (except that they are inconsistent).

The last form of trust is Critique. This is when another watches and criticizes. As a kid, when I went boating with my father, he would stand over my shoulder and watch everything I did to ensure I did it “right.” He even supervised me closely while I did something as simple as filling up a water tank. I felt very insecure even doing simple little tasks while his eyes were on me. Critiquing others has its place when that critique is invited. However, when criticism is offered without being asked for, that unwanted judgment simply creates a lack of trust.

To sum it up, Character, Competence, Consistency and Critique are the four C’s of trust. When there is a lack of trust, many things go wrong in relationships. People hide things, cease to be themselves, protect themselves by being defensive and by throwing out accusations. This is not how an effective and productive group behaves. That brings us back to “Assuming Best Intentions.”

“Assuming Best Intentions” teaches that whatever the issues or problems you have with your group or with your group members, you should examine the level of trust among yourselves first. When a problem or misunderstanding occurs, start with assuming the people in your group (family and friends) have your best interests in mind and at heart. If you are proven wrong, and these people have shown they do not take you or your feelings into consideration before acting, then so be it. However, if you immediately assume the worst from the get go, you will automatically make everything worse.

For example, if your teammates show up to your meeting 20 minutes late, and you immediately put them on the defense by saying something like: “Where were you? Don’t you understand we have a lot of do and very little time?” That is just not helpful and would turn your teammates against you. Instead, try, “Oh my gosh, guys, you are so late, is everything ok? Did something go wrong at home or with your car?”

This type of nonviolent communication will get you an answer and a solution much more quickly than a judgmental response based upon fear, insecurity, and distrust. “Assuming Best Intentions” keeps communication civil and the relationship intact while you explore the misunderstanding or mixed messages that may be at play.

In most cases, I found that seemingly distrustful acts are simply caused by miscommunications and misunderstandings. For example, you think your teammates are twenty minutes late, but they believe they are ten minutes early. Your meeting could have been pushed back last minute and you weren’t aware. Before you start criticizing, accusing, or judging others, remember that misunderstandings and miscommunications happen all the time!

Are you the type of person that initially trusts others until they prove to be untrustworthy? Or do you initially distrust others until they prove themselves to be a trustworthy soul? There is no right or wrong answer, but it is important that you know who you are. Knowing the answer to this question enables you to understand the motives you assume for other people’s behaviors. Personally, I trust people first until I get burned and then I distrust. What about you?

At work, when your colleague or employee misses the deadline to complete and deliver a report to you, do you think, “He’s intentionally trying to screw me over, and doesn’t care how it affects my schedule and workload,” or do you think, “Wow, I will have to complete this report now. I wonder if everything is okay with him and if he’s having problems at home. Poor guy, maybe there is a way I can help.” Which is your first reaction? Again, there is no right or wrong answer; you just have to be aware.

Now granted, some people do not deserve to be trusted, like the person who always shows up late and is always going to be late (consistency), the unscrupulous office-ladder-climber who will probably try to make you look bad (character), the person that always criticizes no matter what the circumstances (critique), and the person who can just never get the job done right (competence). However, to be most effective, another thought process can apply when meeting people for the first time or when you have discussed your problems with others and they have promised to change their ways.

Do you immediately go to the assumption of trust or distrust? Regardless of what your answer is, Assuming Best Intentions is a good rule to live by.