6/16/2016 | 3 MINUTE READ

Avoid Conspiracy Theories and Ascribing Intentions

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Isn’t it interesting how much energy we waste and the erroneous conclusions we draw when we ascribe inaccurate intentions to other members of the team?


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8 a.m. - There is some information Steve needs for a meeting the following morning, so he places a call to Jeff, the plant manager two states away. He gets Jeff’s voice mail. Steve thinks, “Why isn’t he taking the call? What could be more important than me? Maybe he’s in the bathroom.” He leaves a message. 

8:30 a.m. - No call back yet. What’s taking so long?  Maybe Jeff’s on the shop floor and his phone is in the office. 

9 a.m. - No word. This is odd. Jeff is usually so prompt in returning calls. Steve wonders what’s up. 

9:30 a.m. - Steve’s been waiting 90 minutes. This is starting to get annoying. If Jeff had any respect at all he would have returned the call by now. 

10 a.m. – Nothing.  This is a personal affront to Steve’s authority. Clearly, Jeff doesn’t respect him as a leader. Come to think of it, Jeff’s been acting a little too independent lately. Steve thinks, “He’s not calling me back because he thinks I don’t need him.”

10:30 a.m. - Steve places another call to Jeff. No answer. Now Steve is angry. Jeff knows Steve called him several hours ago. Steve left Jeff a voice mail and tried his phone again, and Jeff is ignoring him. He probably saw Steve’s name pop up and hit the red circle. What nerve. Steve will show him. 

11 a.m. – Still nothing. Not even a text saying I’ll call you later. Jeff thinks he can run that plant without Steve, does he? What a jerk. He’s probably undermining Steve’s authority right at this moment. Telling his team that he’s smarter than Steve is. Steve’s had enough. He sends an email. Subject: “I left you a message. Call me back.”

11:30 a.m. – Steve is seething. Jeff is probably going over Steve’s head right now, calling Steve’s boss and complaining about his leadership style. Jeff wants Steve’s job. Come to think of it, the boss is out of the office today. What if he made a discreet trip to see Jeff? Jeff probably called him and asked for the meeting. Steve is sweating. 

12 p.m. – Steve is done with Jeff. Done! He plans to travel to Jeff’s plant next week and fire him. He doesn’t need Steve? Jeff’s going to get what he has coming. 

12:30 p.m. - The phone is ringing. It’s Jeff. Steve is so mad he doesn’t even want to talk to Jeff. But he takes the call. The tone in Jeff’s voice is a combination of cheery and apologetic. “So sorry I took so long to call you, but the audit went great.”


“Yeah, remember? We talked about it Friday. Our plant’s largest customer was on site for its quality audit this morning. It went fantastic. No findings. I really have to thank you for everything you taught me last year. There’s no way I could have done it without you. But that’s why I couldn’t answer the phone. I was knee deep in questions from the auditor. I knew you would understand. So what’s up?”

12:31 p.m. – Steve is relieved. He thinks, “Jeff respects me. He values my abilities. He doesn’t want my job. He wasn’t talking to my boss. I don’t have to fire him. I hope to have him on my team forever. I love this guy!”

Isn’t it interesting how much energy we waste and the erroneous conclusions we draw when we ascribe inaccuracies to other members of the team? Here are some examples:

  • An account executive once told me that all of our operations people were stupid, and they intentionally shipped nonconforming product to our customers so the operations team could work overtime reworking the order when the customer sent it back.
  • An operations leader said he was certain the sales people intentionally held back purchase orders until the last minute to make the ops team jump through hoops to get the orders out.

These conspiracy theories seem crazy, but imagine the energy that went into coming up with them, the time lost obsessing over them and the huge distraction they created – all energy and time that could have been used moving the business forward.

World-class leaders and team members have the discipline to avoid ascribing conniving intentions to others, leaving their focus and energy available for that which adds the most value to the business.