Apr
10

Successful Leaders Examine - and Reexamine - Their Assumptions

By Gary Clayton

Assumptions can trip you up

Assumptions can trip you up

We all use assumptions to simplify our world and speed our decision-making, but how safely can we do that as leaders of our business, our organization or family?  Assumptions are ideas or facts that we take for granted as true.  An easy example is moving some boxes to your basement.  You’ve already been up and down the stairs several times and had no problem.  On your next trip, you take it for granted that the stairs are safe.  You haven’t considered that your son might have left his skate board on the stairs or that your dog may be taking a nap on one of the steps.

You make this mistake because you want to complete your task quickly and you trust what you experienced on your last trip.  Your eyes see the same thing you saw on the last trip down the stairs: namely, the walls and the packages that are blocking your view. You didn’t think it was necessary to check for unexpected change.

What if someone had turned the lights out and the stairs were dark?  Would you have trusted that the path was clear?  Probably not, as you would have sensed something was different, therefore you would be unsure how much was different.  What if you were blind?  You wouldn’t know that the lights were now out, but you would know that the possible consequences to you if you fell are too great to take a chance.  You would use your cane to check every step on the stairs, every time you took the stairs.

How necessary are assumptions to your leadership?

To be human is to make assumptions. Your brain is wired to encourage you to make assumptions. There is a limit to how much data your brain can handle at one time and your brain uses assumptions to fill in the blanks. Even in what you see, your brain strips out any huge spaces of uniform color and pattern and only pays attention to the edges, the boundaries, where the color or pattern changes. Your brain assumes that everything in the middle of the space is uniform. That’s why it can take so long to spot that one piece you want of the 500-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Yes, you will make assumptions as a leader. Your brain requires you to. Most of your necessary assumptions are time-dependent. Examples are (a) all of your employees will still be with you and you can use their skills, (b) the value of the dollar and the rate of inflation will not change so much that you can’t create a reliable financial estimate, and (c) your project will be completed within a certain length of time. This type of assumption is necessary to any plan. Yet there are other assumptions that need to be avoided.

Avoid people-dependent assumptions

There are four types of people-dependent assumptions that you need to avoid. All are related to falling into the “us vs. them” trap:

  • stereotyping: It is common to lump people into groups to simplify how you think about them, that their behaviors and thinking are mostly the same. Yet any grade school teacher can tell you how challenging it is to deal with all the different personalities, skill levels and needs that are present in any class. Your employees, contractors, suppliers and customers are no different, so don’t fall into the stereotype trap.
  • erroneous expectations: Once you have given in to a stereotype, it is very common to fall into what psychologists call fundamental attribution error. You start assuming that they do things for reasons different than yours. You believe that you would make a choice in a given situation because you analyze all the pertinent factors, while they simply go with their beliefs, values or personality traits. You believe you can’t trust them to do what you would do, therefore you want to control rather lead than them.
  • treating differences as negatives: Your brain loves people who are like you. You know what to expect from people like you, therefore you trust them and can take shortcuts in dealing with them. When you see people as different than you, your brain wants to go into a defensive posture. It simply doesn’t know what to expect and would like to shun them. Yet usually, if you spend some time learning about these different people, you find that you have many things in common with them. Sharing food, drink and conversation with them almost always results in a reduction in tension and the elimination of some, if not all, of the negatives.
  • one approach fits all: the problem here is two-fold. You are lumping everyone into the same stereotype and you are assuming that they can provide no value in determining a better approach. Let’s face it, the needs of your employees vary depending upon whether they are single, married, single with children, married with children, empty nesters, etc. Your customers’ needs vary depending upon their size, geographic coverage and industry. If you look closely, you will see that growth-oriented organizations are always focused on multiple niches and adapt their approach for each niche. You should do the same with your employees, customers and suppliers.

What assumptions can leaders trust?

So, what assumptions can you trust as a leader? Basically, unverified “facts” about people should be treated very skeptically. Even researchers in the social sciences are very cautious about stating anything unequivocably about people. Time-dependent assumptions are necessary in planning and executing, but they must be tested regularly to ensure the assumption still holds. Use assumptions as you must (and you must!), but don’t allow yourself to trust them.


Gary Clayton provides leadership coaching and consulting services to leaders and those who wish to become leaders in business and life.

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Categories : Decision Making