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The Benefit of the Doubt – Is it Really a Burden?

By Chuck Cusumano and Jillian Broaddus





The benefit of the doubt.


We have all heard the phrase before, but what exactly does it mean, anyway?


There are a ton of unique definitions out there, but according to the Farlex Dictionary of Idioms, the benefit of the doubt is:


“To retain a favorable or at least neutral opinion of someone or something until the full information about the subject is available.”


Sure, that makes sense. But the definition leads us to another, bigger question:


When did giving the benefit of the doubt stop being the normal course of action – in both business and society?


Did we stop giving the benefit of the doubt because information flows at such a rapid speed in today’s world that our patience is so short that we cannot wait to withhold judgment until all the information is received?


Is it because we have so much information bombarded at us – much of it negative in nature – that we have become, as a culture, negatively-biased?


Is it because we have become so absorbed in the me.com / influencer.com / my-personal-brand.com world that our ability to see a situation as anything other than “all-about-me-all-of-the-time” has left us with little to no cultural empathy?


Honestly, it might be a combination of all or some of these things. We might never have a singular answer!



Where Did the Benefit of the Doubt Go?


Please, let us be crystal clear – we are not saying that everyone (or all of society, for that matter) has lost the ability to give the benefit of the doubt.


As a matter of fact, this is a big part of what we do as a consulting group.


We sell, consult, train, coach, and speak about optimism and being positive. We spend most of our time building on our customers’ strengths not focusing on their weaknesses.


However, we continue to experience a significant increase in the number of inquires that we are asked to consult and coach on that, in the end, come down to a misunderstanding of the basic facts.


Why is there a misunderstanding in most cases? Our data tells us it comes down to 3 specific categories:


  1. Jumping to conclusions without all the information because of a lack of patience or pressure to make decisions faster.

  2. An internal bias (personally or corporately) that others are generally trying to take advantage of in a situation or a relationship.

  3. An inability or unwillingness to sit down and discuss what is happening. A discussion face-to-face is now becoming synonymous with conflict. And we are a conflict-adverse society.


Recently, we ran across a list of news statistics that really caught our eye and gave us a peek into what might be some of society’s issues with the benefit of the doubt.


Here are just a few of the items that made the list:


  • Sensationalist stories form 95% of media headlines. (Guardian)

  • Approximately 1 in 10 adults checks the news every hour. (TIME)

  • When The City Reporter, a website, decided to publish only positive news content for one day, the site lost 66% of it viewership! (Quartz)

  • Headline manipulation has been proven to double readership. (IndustryWeek)

  • People are 49% more likely to read something negative than positive. (NCBI)


We are, undoubtedly, surrounded by negativity in this world!


Facts prove that negativity sells. Polls prove that negative ads help candidates get elected.


But for some reason, the facts seem to be less important than ever when it comes to forming our own opinions.


The New York Times reported on a survey which revealed that 65% of news organizations ignored mistakes, engaged in purposeful misinformation, or purported cover-ups simply to capture readership.

It is odd, is it not? Being negative seems to be the positive thing now. At least, that is the case with the media.


But in business relationships, being negative is one of the quickest ways to lose customers, alienate clients, and create a culture of distrust within an organization. This is just as true – if not more – in your personal life. Your friendships, personal relationships, and your own self-image will suffer from a negative persona.


Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the legal standard of our US criminal justice system – our freedom is at stake in criminal justice proceedings. Innocent until proven guilty is at the bedrock of our nation’s judicial system.


So, if innocent until proven guilty is a foundational concept to being an American, then is it too much to ask that we give our fellow Americans the easier standard – the benefit of the doubt?



What Exactly Does the Benefit of the Doubt Look Like?


This process is just discipline – it is the dedication to withholding judgment before all the facts are in. To not jump to conclusions without evidence other than your own opinion or past experiences.


It is important to realize that withholding judgment does not mean you lose the ability or give up your right to pass judgment – you are simply waiting to gather all the information before you decide to take action or make a decision.

Think about it like this: Calling out a friend for an alleged transgression before you even take the time to understand their intentions is a wonderful way to ensure you have very few friends in life.


This type of behavior destroys trust, which is a precious and instrumental part of human interaction. And this attitude comes in all sorts of forms – jumping to conclusions, asking accusatory questions, etc.


And truthfully, these types of behaviors do not help anything – they often just inflame an issue.


We are talking about questions like, “Were you trying to steal my money when you forgot to give me change?” or “Am I incorrect in thinking you were ghosting me when you never responded to my email?”


Or, even my most recent favorite (not really a favorite, it is so sad the amount of damage it caused) – “Could you please clarify for me why you gave a raise to another employee who does not have the experience I do – I am a little confused?”


Do you think they were actually confused or just being passive-aggressive? Likely the latter.


So, how does the benefit of the doubt help? And further, what does it look like?



The Benefit of the Doubt is about withholding judgment, not foregoing judgment.


The Benefit of the Doubt is about extending trust, not violating trust.


The Benefit of the Doubt is about a choice you make to believe or to be skeptical.


The Benefit of the Doubt is not thinking about yourself but of thinking about others.


The Benefit of the Doubt is an expression of empathy, not of self-interest.


The Benefit of the Doubt costs very little but can return so very much.



If you are trying to build a business, then extending The Benefit of the Doubt to your customers, your vendors, your suppliers, and your employees is a key to success. If you are trying to build relationships, then extending The Benefit of the Doubt to all those that you encounter will be crucial.


No matter what you are after, The Benefit of the Doubt can be incredibly beneficial.


If you think you may need some help in designing a culture that extends The Benefit of the Doubt to others, or if you just want to tell us what you thought of our blog today, please feel free to drop us a note at hello@thejoshuagroupconsulting.com.

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