Regardless of type or size of an organization, one challenge that has permeated most, at all levels, is the tendency and willingness of people to move forward on a project, in their overall job or simply general conversation based on what they understood. We often just assume that we ‘get it’ and don’t need to or feel we have the freedom to question … whether it comes from a boss or co-worker. Unfortunately, how we interpret what we heard, or saw doesn’t make it correct. It’s our assumption rather than knowing it to be fact and that’s when problems arise. Problems that will often prove to be costly, cause frustration and, a general unrest within the team.
I hasten to say that this situation is far from rare. In fact, learning how to manage or work with our teams or co-workers has only become a bigger challenge. Today’s ‘new normal’ into which we are emerging simply enlarges the potential and challenge. In fact, it lays at the foundation of many issues that rear their head within any company … how to have good, clear, basic and effective communication.
Who owns the job of making certain there is a shared understanding?
Whose job is it to get clarification that aligns all behind the same understanding? The answer is simple. It’s everyone’s job. The organization’s ultimate desire and goal is to operate with the maximum level of efficiency and the minimum amount of rework. The employee wants to be successful in their work and be appreciated for their contribution. The starting point for this happening comes through an across-the-board effort of having clear communication and arriving on the same page of shared understanding.
Mara Vizzuitti penned an article entitled “The Poser in Checking Out Your Assumptions” that addressed this issue. She said that “As long as we’re in relationships with others, be it in the workplace or in our personal lives, we are only going to have communication glitches. We would do well to expect them. One of the reasons for this is our propensity for making assumptions about people and events that occur around us. Most of the time, our assumptions are just plain wrong.
In other words, we’re pretty good at deciding what that ‘look’ means or what that ‘email’ means. We even assume we know what people are thinking. It is natural to make judgments, as our brains are constantly processing information. However, we make up stories about the “way he or she is” potentially creating issues with others that don’t exist. It is likely that 80 percent of conflict is based in fantasy.”
We have all experienced this scenario. We see someone make a face at something we may have said and immediately we tend to make up what that means. Like … they don’t like the idea … it’s a silly one … they don’t think we know what we’re talking about … or they just disagree with us. All of this because of someone else’s look or action. And, unless we are willing to question what we saw we will not ever know that our assumptions are, in fact, true or just an erroneous assumption.
What problems are created when we operate on the basis of assumptions?
As a leadership coach Ben Brearly has researched this very issue and has identified ways in which making assumptions damages a team. First, he provides three reasons that we should all stop making them:
- Making assumptions closes your mind
They create ‘labels’ that we attach to other i.e., fantastic, lazy and once attached they become harder to shake them off.
- Making assumptions can upset your team
buying into the idea that Jim is lazy and thus not as productive as he needs to be or that Rita is a superstar and treating her as such risks demoralizing the rest of the team which doesn’t bring a winning outcome.
- Making assumptions makes it hard to change your mind
If you take on opinions and have developed a perception of Jim, he is in for a tough life at work. He is going to have to work extra hard to fight back against that assumption and to change your mind. The only problem is, everything he does is likely to be seen in the light of “his laziness” and it becomes a hopeless cause.
If someone in your team is in this unfortunate situation because of an assumption of their behavior or ability, it will be a hard road for them to change your mind. The result is that they may choose to leave your team rather than enter a lengthy battle to change your mind. You may just have alienated someone who could have been good for the team.
Acknowledging that there are harmful and unproductive risks associated with making assumptions about people here are suggestions as to how we can stop doing this:
- When you don’t have information, get three points of view.
At time, and especially today in a work-world shaped by COVID, we don’t have the chance to see your team members as closely as you’d like to. It’s tempting to just get somebody else’s opinion and use it as your own.
Instead, be patient. Collect opinions from at least three people who do have the opportunity to work with the person you are wondering about. Three opinions are better than one. If somebody close to you is trying to influence your opinion of somebody else, they are less likely to succeed if you use multiple sources to try to find the truth.
- Understand people’s motives
When you hear somebody criticize someone’s work ethic or ability, be wary of taking this opinion for yourself. You always need to question the motives of people around you. Are they in competition with the other person? Do they feel threatened by their experience or skill?
You don’t need to act as if every comment is part of a murder mystery, but it still pays to be impartial, and to think about what may be driving the behavior of the person giving you the information.
How can we best counter a tendency to move forward only on our assumptions?
What is particularly important is that we become curious and enter a communication wanting to truly ‘hear’ the response regardless of what it may be. Here are some simple ways to check out our assumptions as identified by Vizzutti:
- Ask Permission:
Can I check something out with you?
- Describe the behavior:
Yesterday, I noticed you made a face while I was presenting my suggestions for moving forward …
- State your Assumption:
“I assumed you were upset with what I had said …”
- Ask an open-ended question: “Is this true? What were you thinking?
In making your inquiry as you seek to determine the validity of your ‘made-up’ conclusions you are going to find out one of two things: Either …
- you will find that your assumptions were just wrong and nowhere near the truth.
- you will determine that your interpretation is correct, and you can then have open conversation to understand the other person(s) better and create how you can avoid such unintended consequences or at least minimize this in the future.
Regardless of what you discover you will then know how you should and need to proceed. Perhaps nothing other than to work to tame your imagination. Or perhaps you will need to have more conversation to understand the other person’s point of view. Just remaining satisfied that your original assumption is right will eventually impact the relationship negatively resulting in withdrawal from the other person(s). That in turn can clearly impact both the organization’s success and one’s personal satisfaction and enjoyment of his/her jobs.
Think about it. All it takes is talk … something we do pretty easily!