Can “Innocence” Be a Good Thing in the Workplace?

I’m one of those people others laugh at because of how easily I believe. I even thought my sister was serious the other day when she said her eight-month-old had given another baby black eyes. She was just joking, of course, about a “fight” the baby got in when another baby tried to take her favorite ball.

Luckily, according to a recent subject of The New York Times business section column, Corner Office, such “innocence” may not be an entirely bad thing. Adam Bryant interviews Ragy Thomas, the founder and chief executive of Sprinklr, a social media platform, and finds that Thomas’ “naive” belief in people may work to his advantage: “It is a strength because, statistically, when you act that way with 100 people, you might get beaten up 80 times because of it,” Thomas tells Bryant of his innocent belief in people. “But then there will be some people who respond because you believed in them, and they start doing things they didn’t think they were capable of doing. And those people just come through for you in a big way, and allow you to do big things. By embracing this approach and taking a statistical view of it, you always come out ahead.”

Thinking back on my time in the workplace, I think my innocent first impression of people, in which I tend to give others the benefit of the doubt, has both helped and hurt me. At my first full-time job, I kept trying to be friendly to a manager who didn’t have my best interest at heart, but at the same time, the open mind I initially looked at her with helped me to persevere. If I had immediately closed my mind to her potential to be (at least a somewhat) nice person, I would have grown cynical, and maybe wouldn’t have continued putting my heart into my work. Instead, our boss gave me credit for my enthusiasm, and even gave me an “Entrepreneur’s Award” for taking on all the work she and my manager sent my way.

A big part of having an upbeat, possibilities-are-endless corporate culture is having leaders, middle managers, and lower-level employees who have a belief—at least to begin with—in others. I like to think that even my current manager, whom I don’t enjoy working with, would be someone I would like in a different context, like if I met him at a cocktail party, or if he was a neighbor I periodically borrowed cooking supplies from.

Is there any kind of learning program that can encourage employees to think with a fresh mind about each person they are assigned to work with? It helps to have assignments that require you to work with new people. One reason employees become close-minded and negative about new people they meet is because they don’t meet that many new people, and even more infrequently do they work with new people.

The manager at my old company, who I tried my best at first to have positive feelings about, was negative toward me from day one probably because she had been in an insular position for so long. By the time I got there, she had been in the same work group for 14 years. She ended up staying with that same magazine for more than 20 years before finally getting boot. I can imagine she wasn’t used to too many fresh faces during her time there. So she probably found my introduction to the work group stressful and suspicious. It was a small work group, so every time a new person was added, it was cause for speculation and gossiping. What if, instead, she had been given assignments, or job rotations, in other work groups? In addition to gaining exposure to more new people, she might have been more adaptable to change and less territorial. She might have looked at me as someone joining to lend a hand instead of an interloper seeking to take her place.

Lateral mentoring, or buddying, also can help keep employees’ minds open. I don’t know if such a thing exists, but what I envision would be a buddy system in which employees are matched with others in different departments who are at the same level, and are assigned to support each other. To encourage participation, you could offer added vacation time if the buddies spend a day working together at a local charity, or you could offer credit on performance reviews for buddies who kept work-related journals, which they shared with each other, each responding to the other’s challenges. Participants in the program could acknowledge in their performance reviews how they were able to apply lessons learned from their buddy to their own work challenges. Or, if you want to be dictatorial about it, you simply could require all employees to have a lateral buddy, and require them to do activities together and keep work-related journals they share and comment on. Either way, it helps to interact with, and get to know, another employee outside of your work group.

Being close-minded about co-workers also takes the form of manager or leader favoritism. It reminds me of all those times the manager or department head had a favorite who didn’t perform well, but was championed nonetheless. Meanwhile, other employees, about whom the manager jumped to the conclusion are unworthy, were doing more and better work. A guiding hand from trainers and Human Resources executives can help prevent that from happening. A Human Resources or Learning professional can meet with managers once a year and discern through questions and answers and demonstrated work whether any (or most) of the employees in the manager’s department are being thoughtlessly passed over.

What do you think is the best way to cultivate a corporate culture that creates managers and employees with open minds, always willing to give a new face in the work group, or department, a fair chance?


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