When in doubt, give others the benefit of the doubt



In our societies today, trust remains an elusive term among us.

It is true that trust should not be given easily and that it should be earned over time. This is especially so when there is a high cost or price to be paid when that trust is betrayed. However, there are some of us who are beginning to dispense trust with extreme pettiness and suspicion, and this applies even to the most trivial of matters.  This can most prevalently be seen among individuals in leadership positions in organisations and even among educators in the classroom.

Let’s have a look at the individuals in authority in the corporate workplaces first, specifically those individuals who are managing staff under them. Some of these individuals are still holding on to the Authoritarian (aka Dictatorship) leadership style that can be considered passé in contemporary times. I do not understand what the allure is in this leadership style that has induced many leaders to continually adopt them. It doesn’t work, and it never will. Why is this leadership style effective in the past? It has never been effective. The reason why it seems effective in the past is because people follow orders out of fear in the past, but in current times, employees are demanding for a more reasonable workplace where sound reasoning and individuality are rapidly replacing dictatorship and conformity. If we were to examine whatever frictions and conflicts that have resulted in the workplace in recent years, much can be attributed to this change in employees’ expectations and employer’s futile attempt to grasp at whatever is left of this Authoritarian leadership style.

It will be good to have a look at some examples to illustrate why the Authoritarian style is ineffective:

  • Stifling workplace: While employers are working hard at completing their assignments and meeting deadlines, their bosses are constantly hovering above their heads and breathing down on their necks, incessantly demanding updates on their work.  We – especially the employers- should have an awareness that some employees are independent workers and hence will appreciate the flexibility and freedom in producing and delivering their work. Constant queries not only destroy the trust that is so essential between employees and employers, it also shows a lack of belief in the capability and competency of the employees. If employers have so much doubt in the capability of the employee, they should not have entrusted the task to the particular employee in the first place. In fact, they should have taken on the tasks themselves. In a nutshell, when employers empower employees, believe in the employee and trust that they will deliver. Offer help whenever possible but do not question the employees’ capability and competency.


  • Offer employees help whenever possible, and not demand a closure: When an employee is late in his or her work submissions, there is always a reason. In fact, I believe that there is always a reason for everything. Consider an instance when a boss came to know of his subordinate’s late work submission. Despite the fact that he knows that the employees are working hard at getting things done, he simply left the office after dropping him an email. In the boss’s email, he has left the employee with his handphone number, asking the employee to call him once things are done. This act is not helping. This is seeking a closure (read: assurance) that things will be done. This act is in fact another way of telling the employees that they are on their own. Bosses and employers who adopt this approach never win the hearts of their people. It is human nature that we respect people who care for us, and we often hold such individuals in high regard. In this case, if the boss has given the employee his handphone number and asks the employee to call him when help is required and not when the work is done, things might have taken a different turn. A much better turn, in fact.


  • Never ask employees for updates when they are unwell:  It is not right for employers to ask employees for updates when they are on sick leave, even for urgent matters. It is true that employees should be responsible to the organisations and their bosses but weighing the balance between the employees’ health and work, which is more important? The employees who are sick are not the only ones in the company and I believe that there are others who are able to stand in to cover their work in the meantime. Even in the event that the sick employees are the ones solely in charge of the projects, employers should drop them an email or SMS (if it’s really urgent) reminding them of the upcoming deadlines, and not ask them for any updates (unless absolutely necessary). I believe that deep in the hearts of all if not most employees, we all want to do a good job. However, insisting on the completion of a job by employees in the face of poor health is just not right. It is in fact, inhumane. There are some employers who reject employees’ leave applications due to urgent works to be done without asking if there are any specific reasons why employees will want to apply for their leave at this point in time. The employees may have something urgent to attend to at that point in time. It should be highlighted at this point that employees join an organisation because they have something useful to contribute to the organisation. In return, the organisation pays the employees a certain amount, often known as a monetary remuneration. This is about it. It is a win-win situation. If an organisation’s demands on the employees go beyond the employees’ professional obligations and intrude into their personal lives and time, then the organisation will shift from a family-oriented organisation to being merely a machinery where employees are merely numbers/statistics and/or cogs in the wheel. But is this where organisations want to be headed? If so, we may well see many individuals working freelance or being consultants in the years to come, not by choice but due to circumstances. Maybe Tom Peters is right. It’s time for personal branding. It’s time to have a brand called “You”. It’s time for employees to brand themselves.

From the abovementioned examples, it can be clearly observed that the Authoritarian style does not work. More importantly, it can be observed that employers often choose the Authoritarian style due to a lack of trust in the employees. Thus, the Authoritarian style will fail miserable not only because of the ways things are being done but also because there is not enough trust given to others.

Now, let’s have a look at some scenarios in the classroom where there’s clearly an apparent lack of trust:

  • Accept students’ reasons whenever possible: Many educators and parents often complain that students are lazy and do not care about deadlines. Should we meet students who do not meet deadlines, we should ask ourselves the following questions before concluding that these students are rebellious or making things difficult for us:

During our previous dealings with them, have they tried to inform us of a reason why they have submitted their work late but we have refused to listen? 

A constant refusal to believe the students’ reasoning and justifications have a detrimental effect in their ability to trust us in future because we do not trust them in the first place.

Have we really trusted them when they inform us about updates on their work and have we really listened to them when they inform us  about  their daily happenings in their lives?

Be it in friendships or mentorship relationships, trust is primarily build on a platform where both parties share an interest in the welfare of each other and more importantly, the dreams and aspirations of each other.

I once spoke to a student who appeared indifferent because he was losing his trust in the traditional educational institutions as he was not doing well in his studies. However, once I followed up with his dreams and aspirations, things take a different turn and we managed to engage in an informative conversation that lasted for a full 30-45 minutes! Such is the impact of believing in someone.

All of us are always looking for someone who believes in us and it’s great if we can become that Someone for someone.

  •  Have we ever apologised to our students when we have a mistake?

This is an interesting question since there are indeed some educators who do not apologise not only to their students but to their colleagues (who often happen to be their subordinates) as well. Not apologising is undeniably an act of a Authoritarian/Dictatorship leadership style. Be it as educators or parents, when we do not apologise when it’s apparently our fault is both unreasonable and unhealthy. It is unreasonable because by not admitting our mistakes, we are inadvertently informing our students/children that they are the ones at fault (which is obviously not the case). This will cause our students/children to lose trust in us. It is unhealthy because – as educators and parents – we are supposed to be an example for our students and children.

Thus, by apologising, we not only pass a message to our students/children that – as educators/parents -we are merely mere mortals who are fallible but that we make mistakes as well, just like them. This commonality will bond our students/children closer to us because the latter will trust us more due to this similarity. Within a single act of apologising lies our sincerity and humanity and suddenly, we do not seem so distant to them anymore.

Hence, be it as a supervisor in the workplace, an educator in the classroom or a parent at home, we should always strive to build trust with others and more importantly, to have trust in others. This should of course be encouraged when there is a valid basis for trust to exist.

In such cases, believe in the good of others and others will surely believe the good in us.


One thought on “When in doubt, give others the benefit of the doubt

  1. Very pertinent points. I am a freshman in India, and the hierarchical mode of education might yet be the root of unequal work atmosphere. Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat” actually warns that if workplaces cannot imbibe the collaborative sense of community that the Internet has inspired, then we might have a growin virtual and real disconnect. Who knows though? it might yet have a collaborative effect…

    Your blog is wonderful to read, thought-provoking(novel to a teen) and stimulating.


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