how to stop making assumptions

Dear leaders, please stop making assumptions – here’s how

If you want to be an effective leader, you must learn how to stop making assumptions. Otherwise, you risk destroying your credibility.

In life, there’s no such thing as perfect information. Countless daily decisions are made based on an incomplete picture of the world, and those gaps in knowledge are often filled in by assumptions.

Assumptions can be harmless (like assuming your commute to work will take 30 minutes) or even positive (a football coach setting the perfect defensive trap after accurately assuming the opponent will throw a pass on fourth down).

But assumptions are risky and can often be detrimental.

Problems arise when someone responds to a situation in the absence of sufficient knowledge – particularly when emotions are heightened.

When you assume, you impart your own perspective, motivations and values upon a situation. Through that lens, if you’re not careful, you can distort your perception of reality, which can lead to irrational decisions.

The difference between a strong leader and an inept one is their ability to recognize their relative ignorance and become more informed before making a decision. By doing so, effective leaders use facts, outside opinions and empathy to overcome their biases and achieve outcomes better designed to succeed.

The goal is to make as many sound, coherent decisions as you can, as fast as is reasonable – and not one second faster.

How do you stop making assumptions in the workplace?

As a leader, you’re expected to be an effective communicator. That means you must better listen and seek to understand in order to make more objective, and less subjective, decisions.

Here’s how:

1. Articulate your company values as interpersonal values.

Your company’s core values define what the company believes in and, thus, how employees are expected to behave. This applies to leadership and employees alike.

Analyze yourself and your behavior. It can take some gut-level honesty to do this, but you must really get honest with yourself, perhaps uncomfortably so. 

What are your tendencies, biases and preferences? These become the physical evidence of your mindset. In order to regularly act in accordance with your stated values, question your own mindset. Identify where your own thoughts and behaviors align, or don’t, with your company values. And don’t worry, no one is perfect.

Remember: you’re identifying your deficiencies so you can work to overcome them.

2. Complete the picture of reality and seek confirmation.

Think of your perception of reality like prescription glasses. They are lenses through which you see the world clearly. Chances are, that prescription is unique to you and won’t work for other people. How they see the world is distinct, requiring a different prescription to correct their vision.

When you approach a situation, remind yourself that your perspective is unique. Because it’s unique, it’s just one of many diverse points of view. 

Talk to those involved in the situation you’re addressing, and truly listen to their answers. Then dig further by asking open-ended questions. Absorb their knowledge, and let it challenge your preconceived notions.

Once you feel like you hear their point, seek confirmation that your understanding of what they’re saying is accurate.

By opening your mind to diverse, and at time conflicting, perspectives, you’ll be better equipped to craft creative and comprehensive solutions to any challenges that arise.

3. Circle back to company values.

After you consider all sides and come to a conclusion about how you will handle a scenario, revisit step 1.

What are the expectations for how you and your employees should act? Does your response align with those expectations? How, if at all, can you reinforce those company values through your action?

How does this look in the real world?

This process may sound difficult or time consuming, but in real life this can unfold quickly.

Consider this scenario with three possible outcomes:

Bob runs a marketing agency. He and the CEO of his most important client company, until recently, were as thick as thieves. They saw eye to eye on every project and communication between the two was responsive, professional and cordial.

After executing a new marketing campaign for the company last month, the CEO has been short-tempered and abrasive with Bob. Now, Bob is upset, doubting his work and scared that he’ll lose the client.

Outcome 1: Ignore the problem

Bob acts like nothing is wrong. Over the next few weeks, he grows increasingly paranoid that the CEO is displeased with his work.

He begins to question his methods and strategy for other projects for various clients. Bob’s employees grow frustrated with Bob’s frazzled state and wishy-washy decision making. Without a clear way forward, the staff loses motivation and their quality of work suffers.

Without extrapolating further about the long-term consequences to Bob’s employees and clients, it’s easy to see why doing nothing can cause his doubts to fester into a much larger problem.

Outcome 2: Assume that there’s a problem

Bob convinces himself that the CEO is displeased with the new campaign. He becomes increasingly worked up and makes an emotional decision to call the CEO.

Bob, clearly nervous, asks, “When were you going to let us know that you dislike the campaign?”

The CEO is caught off guard and taken aback by Bob’s accusatory question. The CEO explains that he has no issue with the campaign, and the conversation devolves into a tense exchange of unpleasantries.

Because Bob acted on incomplete knowledge, he made an ill-informed and inadvisable decision. Bob’s irrational behavior does irreparable damage to their working relationship.

Outcome 3: Be inquisitive

Bob recognizes that he’s worried about the relationship with the client, but reminds himself that he has incomplete information. He thinks back to the company’s core values of integrity, honesty and believing that people tend to act with noble intent.

Bob thinks about the many successes he’s had with the client during their multi-year relationship. He trusts the CEO and knows that he would tell him if he were unhappy with the work he produced. Still, the CEO’s behavior worries him. So he schedules a call.

After exchanging pleasantries, Bob says, “It’s been a while since we’ve caught up. How is everything going for you?”

“Yes, I’m sorry I haven’t gotten a chance to talk to you sooner,” the CEO said. “Two of my star employees left, and I’ve been filling in for them while I find their replacements.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure that must be putting a lot of stress on you. How is the hunt for their replacements going?”

“It’s been incredibly stressful. I apologize if that’s made me hard to reach. The good news we have two new people starting next week. Oh, and by the way, we love the campaign. The early results look very promising.”

“That’s fantastic,” Bob said. “I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard from you in a while, and I was growing worried something was wrong. I’m thrilled to hear the campaign is working. Is there anything else we can help with to ensure the campaign’s success?”

In this scenario, Bob asks open-ended questions. He’s able to uncover the underlying causes of the CEO’s behavior and check up on the client’s satisfaction of his work. Bob was careful not to jump to conclusions, despite his initial fears. He was also able to highlight honesty, one of this company’s core values. He ends the call by getting buy-in from the CEO that not only was Bob doing a good job, but Bob had done all he could to ensure success.

How does avoiding assumptions make you a better leader?

While the scenarios above are neat, polished and exaggerated for effect, it’s simple to see how effective the third approach is for addressing any number of real-life situations.

When you seek to understand, instead of making assumptions, people begin to implicitly trust your actions and intentions. You’re demonstrating that you care and that you have their and the company’s best interests at heart.

Personal trust can be a freeing and motivating notion.

That trust of your peers builds your influence over time. When colleagues and clients trust your intentions, they’re more likely to listen to your opinion.

By that point, you’ve set the standard. Your colleagues and clients may realize that you listen to outside perspectives and from that, create informed decisions.

This could inspire others to challenge their own assumptions. The result can be more positive actions and reactions out of your employees.

What could go wrong in the process?

Any number of variables could negatively influence outcomes.

Life is full of instances where decisions must be made under time duress and with minimal information. Take war or sports, for example.

There’s also the possibility of entering a feedback loop, whereby your biases and assumptions are reinforced. That’s why a variety of views is important.

In other scenarios, some people actively lie or hide the truth for various reasons. These individuals are a particular challenge, but one that should be met with patience, active listening and open-ended questioning.

Not every conversation will have positive results, and you will never have perfect information. The key is to build as complete a picture of reality as possible, to divorce yourself from biases and emotion and to approach every situation with an appreciation of your own knowledge gaps.

The most effective leaders know how to stop making assumptions. It’s a critical aspect of not just business, but of communicating with people on a human level.

Treating people with respect and dignity is a hallmark of being a leader that people respect and adore. If you’d like to learn more strategies for effectively leading others, download our free magazine: the Insperity guide to leadership and management.

The Insperity Guide to Leadership and Management, Issue 2
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