Questioning Motives

Why do we spend so much time questioning, and assuming what each other’s motives are?

When I was reflecting on the theme of trust in teams, this question jumped out at me. Could this be a potential entry point to breaking the cycle of distrust that exists in many groups?

(Fig 1 — An illustrative version of this post)

Symbols, Meanings and Motives

Let’s quickly introduce some conceptual frameworks to illustrate -

The Shannon-Weaver communications model (1), which says in any exchange of information we have:

  • Sender — who creates and transmits the message
  • Receiver — who receives and interprets it
  • Channel — over which the message is carried
  • Feedback (often on the same channel) — from the receiver back to the sender
  • Noise — a source that can distort the message in transit
(Fig 2 — Simplified Shannon-Weaver Communications model)

Then, according to Saussure’s work on semiotics (2), we have the content and intended meaning of the message, the “sign” made up of:

  • Signifier — representations of meaning
  • Signified — the meaning itself, and in this case the bit we’re interested in, the motive.
(Fig 3. — An example of the semiotic relationship)

However, to talk about motives, we need to break the signs down into layers:

  • Symbols — Words, pictures, expressions,
  • Meaning — shown through actual behaviour and actions
  • Motives — Underlying intentions or agendas that are driving people to operate in a certain way

The sender’s symbols and meaning are visible to the receiver. The symbols are articulated using words (spoken and written), pictures and facial expressions. The meaning, while it may take time to become evident, makes itself known through the sender’s actual behaviour and actions. The motives on the other hand, remain unclear, buried and hidden away possibly forever.

Despite this, receivers are often highly preoccupied with a sender’s motives. Because of this preoccupation, and because they cannot force the sender to reveal their motives, they make assumptions. In turn, their assumptions can override the symbols and even the meaning they have experienced, creating a new message with negative effects on trust for both parties.

As we’ll discuss later, the sender may choose to reveal their motives with time, but that can take a high degree of trust.

Making assumptions

Why does a receiver make assumptions about the sender’s motives?

  1. People assume so they can anticipate another’s behaviour
  2. People anticipate so they can prepare
  3. People prepare so they can defend
  4. People defend because they are afraid.

The conclusion is that receivers make assumptions about motives because they are afraid. Not necessarily of the sender, but of being caught out, appearing naive or vulnerable, or of failure.

Often making assumptions is a reaction, an unconscious bias coming to the surface, or possibly an embedded behaviour from participating in groups where there have been many tightly held or conflicting motives at play.

However, rather than reacting there can be a choice…


If the receiver chooses to react in fear and makes assumptions about the sender’s motive, bad things will happen:

  • An expectation of negative behaviour from the sender, due to confirmation bias
  • Confusion, from misinterpreting the sender
  • A win/loss framework for dialogue will be constructed
  • Anxiety, from obsessing over the unknown
  • A cycle of distrust perpetuates. If the receiver assumes the motives relate to values that conflict with their own, trust can be eroded quickly and unnecessarily, and is very hard to rebuild.
  • It’s wasteful, because the true motives of the sender may remain buried forever.


Alternatively, the receiver can choose trust, despite the motives of the sender being unknown. There are two ways of exercising trust, depending on the relationship between the sender and receiver. The receiver can choose to trust the sender, trust the symbols and their meaning and ignore any motives.

If the receiver makes this choice, good things will happen:

  • Less ambiguity and confusion by focusing on the message, not the noise
  • Expectation of positive behaviour — working to the highest common denominator
  • Open and unbiased dialogue
  • Safe to fail environment
  • Cycle of improving trust
  • Increased efficiency — focusing on what matters, not the unknowable
  • Increased likelihood that the sender will be open about their motives next time
  • Less anxiety wondering about the unknown — through patterns of symbols and meaning, the sender’s motives will become unequivocal.

One thing to keep in mind in putting this into practice is that we sacrifice salience. This means that without knowing someone’s motives it can be difficult to understand the importance of the message to the sender.

Even so, it’s better to choose trust because a misunderstanding of priority is easily clarified. In comparison, misunderstanding someone’s motives can impact an outcome, and possibly trust as well. In time, by building trust a sender will feel safer to be open about salience as well.

If we set motivations aside and focus on the message itself — taking the symbols at face-value if necessary — we build trust more quickly and have greater clarity, which is worth the smaller risk of being naive or vulnerable.

Don’t assume — Ask

If a sender’s motives are really puzzling you — ask, but don’t assume! By asking you demonstrate openness, which is a precursor to trust. Be aware that they may still not be open with you (likely due to a lack of trust). In this case it’s best to take them on face-value without making further assumptions until you see evidence of their real meaning .

In time, people will naturally reveal their motives, but only when they are ready and in a safe, trusting environment where there is open dialogue on both sides and values are being shared.

Have the courage to assume the best of others, even if there is a risk of being let down, and stop wondering about motives.


  • Stop questioning and assuming people’s motives
  • Where there are negative assumptions, there is fear
  • Be courageous! Choose trust — and create a cycle of trust




Fig 1 — Jordan Lewis 2017

Fig 2 — Jordan Lewis 2017 (

Fig 3 — Nicolas Carter 2012