Photo by Ginny Sampson
One of the big mistakes that people (including me) make in business and life is to assume that we understand other people’s internal motivation.
What makes this problem even worse is that we usually do it subconsciously.
Several years ago my sales partner and I were trying to sell a project to a prospective customer. In trying to engage one of the key decision-makers, we were continually rebuffed. She was cold and short on the phone. She seemed downright sullen in meetings.
We judged her as snobby and assumed she was against our project.
Then one day, I happened to see our prospective client in a quick interaction with her co-worker. As I watched her aloof responses, a light bulb went off over my head. I realized — Oh my gosh, she’s not snobby; she’s shy!
The big mistake that many of us make is that we judge other people’s actions through the lens of our own personality and backstory. We look at their outside behavior and assume that we understand their internal motivation.
For example, if you’re a talker, and someone else is silent in a meeting, you’re likely to assume they don’t care, or worse, that they’re against you.
On the flip side, if you’re more reserved, you’re likely to view a big talker as a grandstander trying to grab center stage.
Unfortunately, this problem goes much deeper than interoffice communication. Misjudging the motivation of others results in loss of trust, hurt feelings and a cascade of dysfunctions in many areas of our life.
The first step in solving this problem is to recognize it. Can you tell the difference between the first half and the second half of these statements:
He’s trying to add staff; he’s obviously empire-building.
You haven’t answered my email; you’re trying to keep me out of the loop.
She keeps forgetting this; clearly she doesn’t care.
The first part is a fact about a person’s behavior. The second part is an assumption about their internal motivation.
One of the sad realities of the human condition is that we’re often quick to assume bad intent. Because we see the world through the narrow lens called “My Perspective” when someone says or does something we don’t like, we make the leap inside their brain and assume that we understand exactly what prompted them to act that way.
Have you ever been hurt by someone close to you because you assumed that their actions meant that they didn’t like you, or love you?
We’ve all done it; it’s human nature. But that doesn’t mean it serves us well.
One need look no further than our polarizing politics to see what happens when people make assumptions about the internal motivations of others. If Facebook is any sort of cultural temperature check, it would appear that many people on both sides sincerely believe that the other side wants to ruin our country.
People aren’t just accusing each other of having bad ideas. They’re accusing each other of bad intentions.
Call me naïve, and I’m sure that many of you will, but I find it hard to believe that there are large numbers of people waking up every day asking, “How can I make life worse for my fellow citizens?”
The only way to truly understand other people’s motivation is to ask them. Without knowing why they’re doing what they’re doing, all you’re doing is making a guess.
And a bad guess about someone else’s motivation doesn’t just hurt them; it hurts you.
Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of “The Triangle of Truth,” which the Washington Post named as a “Top Five Book for Leaders.”