“Do you give me the benefit of the doubt to question things right now?”
– Toto Wolff, Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Racing Team Principal & CEO
There’s a video where Harvard Business Review interviews Toto Wolff. For some quick background, Toto’s Mercedes-AMG Petronas team dominated the F1 racing circuit for years until they recently experienced a losing season. They were, for all intents and purposes, untouchable… until they weren’t.
As Toto unpacks experiencing loss and challenges in the interview, he hits on something very important. Working alongside the engineers on the Mercedes-AMG Petronas team, there were moments when he needed to back off and quit micromanaging. At the same time, there were also times when he needed to step in as a leader to poke holes and ask tough questions. When that time came, everyone on the team needed to make room for “the benefit of the doubt.”
As teams, we’re all going to have those moments where we need to give the people around us the benefit of the doubt. What does it mean to give someone the benefit of the doubt?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines it this way:
To believe something good about someone, rather than something bad, when you have the possibility of doing either.
Merriam-Webster brings a similar definition to the table:
The state of accepting something/someone as honest or deserving of trust even though there are doubts.
Successful teams do this. They build trust with the people around them – from the skills and expertise they possess to their work ethic and integrity. Then, when doubts come, they lean into that trust they’ve built up over time and give one another the benefit of the doubt.
The benefit of the doubt allows us to:
- Poke holes in one another’s ideas
- Ask tough questions
- Hold one another accountable
- Step into loss and challenges without blame or finger pointing
Make no mistake… The benefit of the doubt is earned, not to be thrown around thoughtlessly. The level of trust required to give someone else the benefit of the doubt is built over time, a collection of repeated actions that demonstrate someone deserves it. Teams earn each other’s respect and trust by showing up daily in ways that warrant receiving it.
You may not lead an F1 racing team, but giving the people you work with the benefit of the doubt will open the doors to achieving your goals together. It creates space and permission to ask the tough questions that lead to success. Great teams trust one another and believe the best even when challenges arise. In fact, that’s often the one thing that leads them through the challenges.