Have you ever made a quick decision, based on a faulty assumption, and found out later you were dead wrong? Ever met someone and immediately determined what meaning they did (or did not) have in your world, only to realize you were way off? If you’re human, you’ve likely felt the sting of faulty assumptions. I know I have!
You’ve heard what we say about assumptions, right? “They make an ass out of you and me.” (Get it? ASS-U-ME. 😂)
I’ll never forget feeling like a bigshot, as a guest of honor, at an event for a member of the Florida House of Representatives. This soft spoken, “nice”, and unassuming guy – wearing his work polo with the company logo on it and khaki pants – engaged with me. He asked me a couple of relevant questions, which I answered, and then promptly moved on. My assumption was: “This is a lower-level manager with (that company), not a value-adding networking opportunity, and I’ll never see again.”
Fast forward two years… I walk into the final interview for a pretty great role with a new company. I knew I’d be interviewing with the head of HR, SE U.S. GM, and a couple of others. When I walked in the room the GM said, “Hi Karen, it’s good to see you again!” I hoped they all didn’t notice my confusion as I tried desperately to figure out when I could have met this man.
Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I’m 100% certain the GM noticed my confusion. However, he graciously said “Juan Andrade, we met at Representative Waters’ event in Largo.” Yep, the “nice” man I’d assumed was unimportant to me two years earlier was about to decide my fate, on something I REALLY wanted. 😬
We all make assumptions. It’s not our fault. Well, it’s not completely our fault.
Making assumptions is a natural process our brains use to interpret our environment. After all, it would be impossible to consciously think through every social and physical cue we see! Assumptions help us discern the overwhelming amount of information we are bombarded with 24/7.
Despite the advantages quick discernment, making faulty assumptions can have disastrous consequences. Snap judgments can embarrass us, sure. But they can also cause us to take, or direct, action that leads to confusion, mistakes, and rework. The asset we often rely on as leaders (our quick minds) can end up demonstrating a lack of discernment. When we decide too quickly and err, we can deteriorate the trust we need with our bosses, peers, and staff.
So, what can leaders do to avoid the pain of incorrect assumptions in the workplace?
Here are a few tips I share with my executive coaching clients to help them avoid faulty assumptions:
- Cultivate a culture of open communication, where employees feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. The freedom to communicate openly helps assure leaders are making informed decisions and judgement calls, versus pushing forward based on their own biases and beliefs.
- Be aware of, and intentional about, avoiding confirmation bias: The tendency to seek only information that supports our beliefs and dismissing everything else. Instead, seek out diverse opinions, information, and perspectives. This helps assure clarity and accuracy of the facts and avoids making faulty decisions based on incomplete or outdated information.
- Embrace a growth mindset and become a model of continual curiosity and learning. This helps those around you do the same, while opening-up collaboration and leading to the best decisions.
These tips free us from the pressure of being “the one” with all the answers and protects us from being fooled by faulty assumptions.
Remember, we are all hard-wired to make assumptions. This is an important aspect of our brain and it serves to keep us safe. Further, as leaders, we are often expected to rely on our experience and make quick decisions with little information. These things aren’t going to change.
However, often, we don’t HAVE to make immediate judgment calls and uninformed decisions. This is when our level of self-awareness must be high-enough to recognize we’ll make the best decision, for ourselves and our organizations, if we take the time to validate or disqualify our assumptions.
Fortunately, I was at least polite at that event. Despite my woefully faulty assumption, I didn’t burn the bridge. I got the job and had the good fortune of working with that brilliant, incredibly observant, businessman, with a mind like a steal trap – who wore company polos and khaki pants almost all the time! #lessonlearned