To be honest, I was astonished when I heard it. One popular and influential leader publicly said of his colleague, “He cares for nothing except the perpetuation of his own position. He has no values and cares about little other than his own career advancement.” What? Really?
I was saddened by the open and brazenly unfair critique. Honestly, I didn’t much care for the leader who was being talked about and I actually suspected the speaker was right. But in the midst of conflict, when work needs to get done, this type of attack is like pouring gas on a fire.
What makes it so bad?
There are many facets of a leader’s work that are, and should be, open to critique: Our actions, words, ideas, and decisions are all fair game. When someone disagrees with them, we can choose to push back or not, but our future leadership will likely be better if we are open to those who disagree with us in those areas. What shouldn’t be open to debate, yet is increasingly disparaged, is our motives. Psychologists call it “assigning motive.” Listen carefully and you’ll hear it all around you.
What’s so awful about the statement made by the leaders above is that it has nothing to do with the person’s track record, his ideology, or his actual leadership. Instead, the critic claims to know the inner workings of his opponent’s mind and tears him down on that basis. He has “assigned motive” to the person’s behavior. There are a number of reasons why this kind of attack should be out of bounds.
First, there is no way a person can know the motives of another. Since we can’t actually crawl inside anyone’s head and see what’s going on, we don’t actually have any idea what their motives are. The apostle Paul says, “For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him?” (1 Corinthians 2:11a ESV) I can’t claim to know what is motivating you; and to do so is to muddy the argument and divert it from what might actually be helpful.
Second, there is no way to defend against such an attack. How can I prove that my motives aren’t as bad as you say they are? There’s no way I can, even if you’ve totally misrepresented me.
Third, it isn’t helpful. Simply demonizing someone by calling their motives into question doesn’t help resolve the conflict. It doesn’t lay out any kind of argument that can be acted on to move forward. It only serves to make emotions run hot and decrease the possibility that we might actually work together to find a solution.
Fourth, in the long run, it doesn’t make any difference. There’s no way for me to know what motivates you, but even if your motives really are suspect, I still have to work with you to find a solution to the problems we face. Taking potshots at the motives of another person doesn’t change anything. Having an honest and productive conversation about their actions, words, ideas, or decisions does.
At the end of the day, assigning motive only serves to heighten emotion, distract from the important issues at hand, and make it less likely that real solutions will be found. Like pouring gas on a fire, it seems spectacular, but won’t get us where we need to go.
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