making assumptions

Why making assumptions can be damaging your team

Making assumptions can be a problem for anyone but particularly for a leader in the workplace.

When we assume things about ourselves, other people or circumstances, it can cause:

  • Division, possibly to the point of creating a toxic work culture
  • Hard feelings, which foster discontent and complacency
  • Loss of motivation, feeling there’s no point
  • Team breakdown, preventing dialogue and innovation
  • Decreased productivity (preventing forward movement)
  • Retention issues (great employees might leave!)

We’ve talked before about the Ladder of Assumptions (also known as the Ladder of Inference) here at Coach’s Questions and how making assumptions can undermine the potential for your team to succeed. It’s a tool that our executive leadership coaches often use with clients that helps us understand how we think — particularly if we’re misinterpreting things or making assumptions.

But how do leaders know what kind of assumptions are being made?

When you consider your work and your team, think about some of the most common assumptions we encounter in the workplace. These might include things like:

“We’ve always done things this way and it’s worked just fine.”
“Don’t even bother suggesting that. They’ll never listen.”
“Leadership doesn’t get what we do. They’re looking out for themselves.”
“They say that, but they don’t mean it. Nothing ever really changes.”
“Some people can’t be trusted. Gossip and workplace drama are a given.”
“Don’t admit to mistakes or ask questions because it’ll count against you.”
“You’ve got to watch out for yourself. No one else will watch out for your interests.”
“I haven’t heard any issues. If there were concerns, people would raise them.”

In each of these examples, making assumptions is limiting thinking and hampering creativity. Making these kinds of assumptions is going to limit what a team can accomplish because they hinder how well team members work together.

Often the assumptions we make are based on past experience but not necessarily even past experience with that person. They are based on stories we tell ourselves about the world around us. The thing is, we usually make assumptions based on our own view of the world.

The heart of the problem is often that our assumptions inform the question, “Why are they doing what they’re doing?” We can see what others do and hear what others say but we can never truly know what’s going on in their heads to motivate what they’re doing or saying. Our assumptions attempt to fill in that gap but, of course, the assumptions (aka the stories we’re telling ourselves) are based on OUR experience in the world, not the other person’s.

Have you noticed that when you’re having a bad day people seem more irritating? Perhaps more needy? Perhaps less hard-working? That’s not because there’s a conspiracy, but rather because your bad day is casting a shadow over how you see the world — you assume things are not going to go well with people, you assume people’s intentions aren’t good, etc.

Of course, occasionally our assumptions help us out — we’ve learned from past experience with Sally that she’s very interested in her own career and not interested in helping teammates. IF that has proven true in action, then our assumptions were correct — and it’s helpful to have that as ONE thing that might inform our assumptions. But that thought, that assumption, that way of thinking builds a bit of a pathway in our brain and it makes it easier for other assumptions to follow the same path — soon, when we’re tired, or having a bad day, we start making that assumption about someone else. We start thinking their own selfish self-interest is what’s driving them to do something.

Keep in mind, this holds true for everyone around you, too. Your peers are making false assumptions about you based on their current view of the world, plus your staff are doing it with you and with each other. And, occasionally, other people voice their assumptions and opinions that then go on to inform our assumptions and opinions.

As a result, you might be watching Joe in marketing carefully because a peer told you he’s impulsive, loves drama and could be a problem — and you’re set to depend on Manjot in accounting because everyone “knows” she’s a rising star who multitasks like no one else can.
Consider the way assumptions could colour your view of Joe or Manjot leaving early for a family situation:

Joe – “Did he really have to dash out now? He likes to exaggerate things for attention.”
Manjot – “How does she manage it all? There must be a real challenge at home for her to leave early like that.”

I know this all sounds daunting and perhaps insurmountable. It’s sometimes difficult to change your mind about someone once you’ve made an assumption, but it’s not impossible. It can be helpful to try to keep an open mind and take other opinions into consideration but not as absolute truth. Most importantly, it’s essential to remind yourself that you’re making assumptions all the time, and to notice them before acting on them.

As leaders, we can strive to:

  • Notice the self-talk, the assumptions, we’re telling ourselves about why someone is saying or doing something and ask ourselves if it might be incorrect this time.
  • We can reframe the thought with positive intent (‘what if he’s got a big problem at home and is really struggling?’).
  • Occasionally ask people what their motivation was. Not, “ugh, why did you do that?” but rather, “I wanted to check in — you left really early yesterday, what was happening?”
  • Strive to be impartial because when people share opinions, they might be biased, have ulterior motives or be making their own assumptions – consider them as one source and only one.
  • Try to find more than one opinion about someone. Understand that different personalities react in different ways, so some “issues” might actually arise from miscommunication and misunderstandings (there are different tools for understanding yourself and others and at Padraig, we use the Everything DiSC Assessments with our clients. In particular, if you find yourself making assumptions or excuses for people when things are in conflict, you might want to consider our Productive Conflict course.)

Making assumptions is problematic because it creates negativity and conflict (or minimizes and reduces problem behaviours) — and minimizing problems or escalating conflict that goes unchecked can damage your team.

How can we, as leaders, identify and challenge the assumptions that are interfering with how our team members work together?

We have to check in with our teams and encourage some reflection about assumptions, perhaps using theLadder of Assumptions tool.

At your next team meeting, try sharing an example of an assumption that you’ve made that has limited your own thinking. Then ask your team members to brainstorm, identify and share some common assumptions. You might want to start by brainstorming assumptions about clients and customers (since they’re not in the room with you) and then move to encouraging thinking about what assumptions we make about each other on this team or with others in the organization.

Lead the discussion by asking things like, “How does this assumption affect our beliefs? How does it affect our actions?” Be curious and listen. Then challenge by asking: “How can we challenge this assumption going forward? How can we commit to challenging our own thinking?” Be sure to follow up at the next meeting to check in on everyone’s progress and continue to revisit assumptions at future team meetings.

When we recognize the kinds of assumptions that hamper how we and our teams perform, we can actively challenge them and be more intentional about how we choose to act.

Coach’s Questions:

When was the last time you stepped back to think about how assumptions influence you and your team? What assumptions can you identify right now that are problematic? What steps can you take to mitigate how assumptions damage your team?