Trust and the benefit of the doubt at work

Over the past week, I found myself thinking a lot about this seemingly trite phrase in connection with the experience of work: Benefit of the doubt. We use it all the time, in many different settings. It basically means that even if we’re not sure of something or someone, we’re willing to give them a chance to prove their worthiness.

Extending a benefit of the doubt may serve as a powerful expression of trust and support. Consequently, it can be enormously gratifying when a benefit of the doubt turns out to be justified. Our trust is strengthened, we see results that make us happy, and — yes — we pat ourselves on the back for our good judgment.

All things being equal, I’d rather be around people who are likely to extend a benefit of the doubt than those who are not, including at the workplace. I think it makes us kinder, more encouraging colleagues and co-workers. And we may very well benefit when others return the favor to us.

However, what happens when our trust is breached? How do we regard individuals or organizations who — by their very actions — reveal themselves to be wholly unworthy of that benefit of the doubt?

A lot of folks who find this blog because they’ve experienced abusive work environments have wrestled with these very reactions, responses, and emotions. They extended that trust, they gave that benefit of the doubt, and they were badly burned for doing so.

We know from relationships in other settings that once trust is lost, it’s very, very hard to win back. I wonder if directors and managers of bad workplaces understand the longer term, cultural impacts of losing the trust of their employees? Are they surprised when people refuse to give them the benefit of the doubt?

5 responses

  1. I think one should always provide the benefit of the doubt. I think if something has gone sideways and it’s created a situation in which trust is being shaken, it’s best to confront it and find out if indeed it was intentional or something done without really thinking about the consequence. When you have spoken your mind, then give them the benefit and time to see if trust can slowly be regained. As with so many other things in life – we cannot mind read – and have to ask the questions and speak our truth to see if we can work through our problems. If the problem repeats itself, well; you gave the benefit of the doubt, expressed your needs, and it’s best to let go.

  2. A close cousin of “assume positive intent”, benefit of the doubt, I believe, is commonplace in healthy work environments. Not so ironically, the bully in my narrative’s refrain was, “I need people I can trust”. And that was tricky because, I assumed she meant trust to work hard. So now you have the two faces of trust- trust to be good, honest and work hard; and trust to lie, cover up and falsify data. Chilling, really.

  3. I have been told that consistency breeds trust. So, if you consistently treat workers poorly, they learn to expect it and work around it. When workers have to cover butt or work around a toxic manager, productivity and quality go down. I believe we do need to “assume positive intent” with a new job in order to prove our worth to our peers. However, it is naive to assume that some organizations have positive intent rooted in their culture.

  4. Some use the ‘benefit of the doubt’ thing to let themselves off the hook from looking deeper, further to find what might solidify the accuracy of perceptions (good or bad). Others might use the ‘benefit of the doubt’ thing because there is some ‘thing’ that allows the person to feel (without hard core evidence) that any concerns about a person or situation are not as serious as may be perceived. I think employing the ‘benefit of the doubt’ says more about the person who dispenses it than it says about the person who receives it. It seems to me It is more often than not self-serving. Not for the purpose of costing others, but more having to do with one’s own comfort level.

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