Do Not Attribute Malice

In my work with leaders, both inside and out of the workplace, I've encountered a common pattern where when something doesn't go right, those leaders will attribute another person's behavior to malice. In other words, they think that someone is intentionally trying to be mean to them or harm them in some way by their actions.


Of course, this isn't just something that business leaders fall prey to; we all do it. But I encourage you to think differently if you want to live a conflict-free life.


Consider what happened recently to a client of mine. I was working with him to help sell his business in the middle of our current crisis. But when I checked in on my client one day, he was beside himself in anger. He told me that he had called the buyer to discuss some terms of their agreement. But the buyer hadn't picked up, so he left a message for the buyer to call him back. When I called, it had been several days, and the buyer still hadn't called back.


My client was convinced that the buyer was trying to pull a power move by not returning the call. They were intentionally not calling him back to send a message. He was sure. "They're disrespecting me," my client told me. There was a huge amount of negative energy around this one phone call.


We've all been in situations like this before. And it's easy to think that the other party is truly out to get you or harm you in some way. But this is when it's important to remember an important principle called "Hanlon's Razor." While you have no doubt heard of Occam's Razor before, which states the simplest solution to a situation is the most obvious one, Hanlon's Razor, created by Robert J Hanlon, says that, "you should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."


I think we can be generous and amend the law more broadly to say you should never attribute malice when it can be explained by incompetence or even just negligence or forgetfulness.


It's been my experience over the course of my career, for instance, that most of the time something goes wrong, it's just that someone messed up. They weren't out to get me, even if I read the situation that way. They didn't leave that extra clause in the contract to harm you; they just forgot to take it out. They didn't call back because they got busy, not to send a message. People really aren't evil or mean or out to get you.

If you can avoid thinking people are out to harm you, it then allows you to get less emotionally involved in specific situation and it sure saves a lot of calories fuming. You can worry less about feeling disrespected or affronted when your first instinct is to just assume that someone simply messed up first.


Let's return to the story of my client who hadn't heard back from his prospective buyer. Turns out that later the same day that I talked to him, the buyer called back. He had been dealing with a family emergency and had just forgotten to call my client back. He was exceedingly apologetic and totally understood how my client may have been upset about the lack of a timely response. While my client had immediately gone to a dark place, it was all just a misunderstanding.


I've talked before about having grace for other people, particularly in tough times. This is one element of having grace - attributing positive motives to everyone you encounter. No doubt, there are people in the world that don't have positive motives, but I believe they are in the vast minority.


The cool thing about this idea of using Hanlon's Razor to view business situations is that it works in personal situations. Friends and family don't mean to hurt you most of the time and when we take offense, it's all about how we view the act. If you assume good intentions, or incompetency, you can see past the act and not go negative with your emotions. It's helped me.


So, rather than live your life by digging in every time you feel disrespected or that someone is out to get out, pause yourself and see if Hanlon's Razor might apply. I think you'll find that life is a bit less complicated and emotionally draining that way.


Jim Schleckser

jimschleckser@incceoproject.com