A few evenings ago I went into the bathroom to wash up for dinner and noticed a container of figs sitting on the toilet tank. This struck me as an extremely odd place for figs to be left, and while I made a mental note to ask my wife about them later, I also assumed there must be a valid reason and left it at that.

So I went to dinner and the question of the figs quickly fell from my mind until later that evening when we were both in the bathroom brushing our teeth, preparing for bed, and I noticed them again. So I asked the question, “Hey Babe, how’s come we have figs in the bathroom?” To which she burst forth with laughter.

I have to say that her explanation made not much more sense than the fact that there were figs in the bathroom, yet I shared in her laughter all the same, chalking it up to one of those brief moments of brain gap we all have from time to time.

The part of this story that’s of interest to me is not so much the oddness of figs in the bathroom, rather the fact that my automatic response was to give my wife the benefit of the doubt and not make a critical assumption. We have that kind of relationship in which we have such high respect for one another that we never assume the worst, or even the slightly critical. We ask questions first and then go from there, always with care and respect, and as a result we have a most harmonious relationship.

In business, I have experienced many instances in which projects plans, systems and strategies don’t make much sense to an executive who’s first and automatic response is to judge the plan, system or strategy as faulty or dumb, and then to suggest immediate changes. True, there are many faulty and even downright dumb project plans and systems out there, but there are also a good many with well thought out reasoning.

Sometimes conditions change, which necessitates a re-assessment of plans. Yet to encourage innovation it’s far more effective, and also more respectful of team members, to give them the benefit of the doubt and ask for their reasoning. Then as leaders, we can point out that we’re noticing conditions changing and ask them to re-assess their plan, system or strategy, so they can take the credit for the improvement.

This method empowers people to do their very best. The alternative is to belittle and alienate.

The approach of empowerment requires us to lead with humility and inspire through example. In an environment of alienation our ability to collaborate and innovate is severely curtailed. Which approach will you choose today?