There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

Presumption of Merit: The Business of Not Getting Personal

with one comment

As an ex-manager of mine used to say, “work would go so much smoother if people remembered it was just business”. In other words, lots of time and energy goes into dealing with issues that become personal, getting in the way of the actual work that needs to get done. But telling people not to let things get personal  never seemed to illicit the change in behaviour one would hope for – just saying don’t get personal wasn’t meaningful enough.

Several years ago I decided there had to be a better way to help my team not let things get personal, and therefore, avoid all the time and energy being spent on something other then getting the job done.

What I came up with was a concept we came to call the ‘presumption of merit’. The idea, at its most basic, was this – we  work in an environment with many smart people, and if you respond to every communication as if its intent was to move the business forward, you would avoid taking anything personally. Even being called an idiot – clearly a personal attack – should only be responded to by considering how it benefits the dialog at hand.  If you can’t fathom how a given comment is useful to the business, instead of respondnig to the personal attack you might percieve, ask for clarification about how it does help the situation.

When someone does call you an idiot, according to the Presumption of Merit, your only legitimate response is to explain that you don’t understand how that comment is productive, and ask for help in understanding it. But, you must not do this with ‘attitude’, non-verbal non-productive communication is still non-productive.

Often things are not this clear cut. But if you endeavor to only respond to the business issue, it may cause you to pause just enough to not respond to a possibly personal attack with another possibly personal attack.

A couple of years after first formalizinng the Presumption of Meric I was describing the idea to a friend of mine who was just finishing his Masters in Organizational Development. He immediately recognized its intent, and asked if I were familiar with the MRI – which I wasn’t. He went on to describe something called the Most Respectful Interpretation. The MRI is not exactly the same as the Presumption of Merit, but the intent is similar. The MRI asks that you respond to every communication only after considering what the most productive interpretation of that communication is, and only respond to that. There may be other, less productive interpretations, but the MRI tells us not to consider those.

The MRI accomplishes a similar goal as the Presumption of Merit, and I have found that some people find one more useful than the other. The result is that I find both valuable people management toos, and discuss both with my organizations.

Note: I’ve looked for formal references to MRI but have found little online. If you know of a source of the concept I’d love to hear about it.


Written by joshuahoward

October 31, 2008 at 9:04 am

One Response

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  1. This is a nice little rule of thumb. It’s like a trick that people can use to suppress their first reaction in situations where the natural first reaction isn’t helpful.

    I think the “business implication” part is a bit of a red herring, although it works. The key point is to control your reaction, and to understand what lies behind the personal attack (or other unproductive comment). View it not as an attack to defend, but a puzzle to figure out. Personal attacks and emotional outbursts come for a reason: perhaps the other person has some deep-seated fears or insecurities, perhaps I’ve been insensitive to something they care about, perhaps they have some goals I don’t know about, perhaps they’re upset about something completely different and I’m just unlucky. Understanding other people well (in a genuine, and deep way) is key to interacting effectively. I think it’s a more generally-applicable technique because it can be useful in many other circumstances, including less extreme ones (for example if someone just starts to get a little defensive about something I’m saying), and also outside of work where “moving the business forward” doesn’t necessarily apply.

    A great reference for this (and many other techniques for dealing with other people) that I discovered recently is a pair of books about negotiation – “Getting to Yes” and “Getting Past No”. I can’t recommend them highly enough.


    July 9, 2009 at 3:42 am

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