Assumptions – and how they are the undoing of us all


In a workshop last week, a senior manager realized that she’d been holding onto a serious assumption about the sales department. Unconsciously, she had assumed that sales people were so different from the rest of the company (mostly developers), and that they weren’t interested in participating in certain company initiatives aimed at improving staff engagement. As it happened, the sales team was interested, had being feeling excluded and had assumed themselves that they as a team just didn’t matter. Her assumptions as a leader had gotten in the way of an open and honest relationship with the sales team, but she hadn’t even known there was an assumption in play.

That’s the pernicious nature of assumptions. We mostly aren’t aware they are in play and so are blissfully unaware as to how they are getting in the way of us being in better relationships with people privately and professionally.

Even with my assumption-awareness powers that I bring to my coaching and consulting, I still fall for them. For several years, I’ve enjoyed pub lunches with an industry friend. Over that time, he’s made his way up the corporate ladder and last year, was appointed CEO of a large insurer. With this new promotion, I assumed he’d be super-busy and wouldn’t have time for our lunches. He didn’t reply to my emails and so that supported my ‘book-of-evidence’ – he was way to busy to have time for little old me. So I felt sorry for myself, and assumed our friendship had come to its end. A few weeks back, I get a chirpy email from him inviting me for lunch. My assumption had been wrong. He’d been busy but that hadn’t meant he’d forgotten about me.

Silly old assumptions.

From a book worth reading, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz makes an incisive point about assumptions.

 If others tell us something we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something we make assumptions to fulfil our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. Even if we hear something and we don’t understand we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.

I love his point about making assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions. So very true – just as in my case of newly promoted friend and myself. I didn’t want to ask or check in with him for fear of the answer or rejection.

Assumptions by their very nature lurk in the edge of our awareness. They are problematic because they get in the way of better relationships. From our interpretation of reality, we draw assumptions, reach conclusions, and take action. Assumptions need to be busted because they can lead us to come to take actions based on false data.

The best assumption-buster is curiosity – to be curious about the person or situation in question. Become aware of what you appear to be holding to be true. Do you know it to be true or is it perhaps an assumption? This requires practice and some time for reflection. It also requires compassion for yourself. It’s human to have assumptions. It takes a leader to be willing to reflect and explore one’s own assumptions. It takes a courageous leader to test these assumptions and to be willing to set them aside when they turn out to be untrue.

Go forth and be curious!

Photocredit: Ryan McGuire (Free of copywrite restrictions)

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