Many of us will have done management training courses where we are introduced to the concept and folly of “assumptions”. The topic is usually preceded by the trainer writing on a flip chart “Ass u me”, then turning to the audience and with a cheesy grin pronouncing that, “Assumptions, make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”” see it here. This sounds rather trite but in my coaching practice I find that it is one of the most common errors made by senior managers, making assumptions that can eventually turn an otherwise straightforward situation critical. What causes us to make unrealistic assumptions?
The answer is quite simple, it’s human nature. It’s all too easy to assume that other people see the world and think in the same way as we do. The truth is that no two people have exactly the same perception of reality as we do. And why should they. We all see the world through a series of filters and lenses, rather like the lens of a camera fitted with different coloured filters. The lenses may be of different types from wide angle, big picture to telephoto, small detail. The filters through which we perceive the world are numerous and include our age, religion, national culture, innate personality, education, parental influence, life experience, thinking style, beliefs, self-limiting beliefs, knowledge and more. It clearly doesn’t make sense to assume that our knowledge, intentions and thoughts on a particular topic or situation will match precisely with that of our colleagues’, but we do it anyway and rarely check our assumptions.
In the workplace, managers often make assumptions about peoples’ motives, drivers, skill sets, desires, knowledge and confidence levels. The effect of this shows up regularly in missed deadlines and a misunderstanding of intentions. Tasks or projects are delegated to team members based on assumptions about their understanding of the required outcome, their specific competences and their level of confidence to carry it through. Frequently in coaching sessions clients complain to me about a team member’s failure to do something, or failure to spot a problem coming. When questioning the client about details he did not give the subordinate when delegating the project, I frequently hear the statement, “Well, he should have known that”. Implicit in the statement is the belief or assumption that what is in the head of the delegator is also in the head of the delegatee. This is a big assumption but it happens all the time and is the cause of many a fire fighting exercise when the unexpected happens.
Mistakes also occur in succession planning due to an assumption that everyone desires more money and a bigger title as an inducement to stay committed and engaged as an employee. Why wouldn’t they? In a recent case, one of my clients, we’ll call him Alan, had assumed that his next in line, let’s call him Ken, would want his job as soon as he was promoted from a regional to a global role. Alan was puzzled as to why Ken didn’t seem to put in the commitment required to justify his recommendation for promotion. It had not occurred to Alan to ask Ken if he wanted the role. He assumed Ken would be excited and enthused about inheriting the regional job and all the benefits and increased pay that would come with it. Alan decided to test his assumptions by asking Ken about his thoughts on the possibility of being awarded the regional job. To Alan’s surprise Ken said he absolutely would not want it. He was very happy doing a good job in his current role. His first priorities in life were his family and his charity work. A regional job would take him away from home too often. Alan’s succession plan was flawed from the start because of assumptions he had made about Ken’s drivers and priorities.
Assumptions are also the cause of many a missed opportunity with customers. I have personally witnessed many sales pitches telling the customer what he should want, without a single enquiry as to what he actually needs or wants. The whole pitch is based on an assumption that all customer needs are the same. The answer to all of these assumption gaffes is alarmingly simple…ask questions. Ask open questions to test assumptions and gain clarity, for example;
“Can you just play back to me exactly what you’re going to do and when.”
“What obstacles might prevent you from completing this task/project on time?”
“What support is missing that might prevent you from hitting the deadline?”
“Which parts of the project do you feel will present the biggest challenge?”
“What additional resources/information/support do you need to guarantee timely completion?”
“What concerns do you have about this project?”
“What thoughts do you have about your next career move?”
“What would your ideal role look like?”
“What new knowledge/skills do you feel would best equip you for your next career move?”
“What is most important to you in your career going forward?”
These are just a few examples of the type of question that will highlight false assumptions, at the same time providing a safe space for the team member to be open without feeling at risk of exposing a weakness. Depending on the context of the conversation there are many more questions you might ask to check you have not made unreasonable assumptions.
So next time you go on a management training course and the trainer does that cheesy thing with the word “assume”, sit up and take notice. It could one of the most valuable lessons of the course.