Why we Assume the Worst of Others, and How to Stop

She was enthusiastic during the seminar.  The content was spot on. She knew the ideas could help her organization.  But as she thought about her team, she could feel herself deflating.  She was already anticipating their cynicism.  The disparity between her aspirations and reality felt like a heavy weight.

Should she even bother to try?

This scenario happens every single day, whether it’s a business workshop, a relationship seminar, or a volunteer summit.

A few years ago I attended a fundraising workshop with a fellow board member of the non-profit board I served on.  We were both excited about the new processes we learned.  But on the ride back, my colleague, went down the list of board members anticipating their objections.  She assumed they were too invested in the current model to make a change.

To be fair, my colleague didn’t have much experience selling ideas.  She was a finance person, chosen for the board because of her industry experience.  Yet, I could see how her assumptions about the rest of the board were having a chilling effect before we even presented anything.

Here’s how it plays time and again.  Someone sees a new leadership model; they get excited.  Then they think about all the cynics they work with.  You know, the people who seem hell bent on keeping things the way they are.

Anticipating the imagined pushback, the enthusiastic person gets annoyed at their team for the anticipated rejection of ideas they haven’t even heard yet.

Hard Truth: We evaluate ourselves based on our aspirations.  Yet we usually evaluate others based on their actions.

Often, when I recommend changes to an organization, internal leaders will say, “Our people aren’t ready.”  My recommendations are most often about leadership, trust, relationships, and the more emotional components of business.

People often assume their colleagues’ lack of skill in these areas is intentional.  This is rarely the case.  In my experience, people are generally receptive to improvements, if you meet them where they are, and guide them forward without shame or blame.

When we encounter new ideas, via a book, training program etc. the information guides us to new approaches and conclusions.  When our new ideas are at variance with the behavior of the people in our current situation, we forget, our colleagues or spouse, have not had the benefit of our experience.

There’s a great AA expression: Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.  This can go both ways.  When we see others acting confidently, we compare their outward confidence against our own inner angst, without knowing what’s going on inside their head or heart.  We assume we’re the only one falling short.

The reverse is also true.  We yearn for something better.  We assume because others haven’t given voice to similar desires, they don’t possess them.

We assume our complaining coworker will certainly reject a new leadership frame. The negative spouse surely wants the marriage to stay unhappy.  The cranky boss wants a negative work environment.

The problem with these assumptions is they’re based on the person’s current understanding and their current skill.  It’s not based on their hopes or dreams.

Next time you’re tempted to assume your colleague or family won’t go along with an idea, stop.  Unpack how you came to the new thinking, and walk them through a similar process.

Their actions may be screaming “poor manager” or “grumpy spouse,” but you may find their heart, and their aspirations, are absolutely in alignment with your own.