Never Assume

We have all heard the old adage, “Never Assume,” but, of course, we do it anyway. We run our lives on assumptions. When we drive to work we assume people on the other side of the road will stay there. We assume the paycheck will come on the expected day. We assume others will do their job or do what they say. We are always assuming. What “Never assume” really means is that we need to be aware of our assumptions and often, test them. This is of great importance to any organization that considers itself a learning organization.

Some assumptions are purely our own, and others are shared. In organizations where customers are truly valued, it is assumed that their needs are seen as important. This assumption comes from a consistently held and communicated expectation from the leadership that customers are the primary focus. It comes from consistently addressing customer needs in a timely and effective manner. In this manner we want to build certain shared assumptions right into the mindset of our organization.

Leaders often become frustrated with others when they don’t perform to expectations. Our frustration comes from our assumption that the others “should” perform well. We move from frustration to anger when we assume that the reason performance wasn’t as we expected was because:

a. They didn’t care.

b. They are incompetent.

c. They have their own priorities and agendas.

d. They are stubborn.

e. They didn’t prepare.

f. They should have known what to do; so they were either lazy or stupid.

These are all blaming assumptions. The real problem with assumptions in organizations is that we do not share them. In other words, I make certain assumptions about you, but I don’t tell you about them. For example, I ask you to complete a project by four p.m. You say that it will be done. I have certain assumptions about what “done” means. Are they the same as yours? We need to make sure we agree on what “done” means. Will all signatures be on the document? Will the envelope be addressed and ready to go?

As a leader I may tell my employees to offer great customer service. What does that look like? What do I assume that means? I need to share my assumptions about customer service with examples, specifics, and parameters. You can walk into any retail store or restaurant and tell if a manager has shared his assumptions about service. When I receive poor service I know it is a failure of leadership to provide clear expectations.

How do leaders make their assumptions visible? Constant repetition helps. Constantly saying what is expected, constantly modeling it, and constantly having conversations to find out what others assume makes our assumptions visible.

Conversations have to be two way. Leaders need to be in touch with what people are assuming. What do they assume you want? What do they assume is their role in relation to customers, each other, and you? Ask them how they came to that assumption. Was it something you said? Was it something they learned somewhere else?

Most people live in their heads. They don’t converse in a spirit of inquiry, wanting to know about the needs, concerns, and motives of others. When we see others act, we determine needs and motives by making it up in our heads. In other words, we assume with no real basis or proof.

Today’s leader needs to be a conversationalist. I don’t mean lots of small talk. I mean the kind of conversation that gets at people’s needs, concerns, and motives. It is the kind of conversation that builds a shared understanding. A leader can never assume that the people will do a great job unless that expectation is shared, in great detail, and discussed. Leaders sometimes say: “I don’t have time to be doing all that talking with others. I’m too busy.” Often they are too busy putting out fires that could have been prevented by having precise and inquiring conversations.

If we want people to perform well we need to take the guess work out of what they are doing. In my corporate life years ago, I worked for a leader who always told me how the job should have been done after I did it. He made certain assumptions about the results that he never shared with me. It became my job to ask him precisely what results he wanted. I asked him to share his assumptions and expectations. Often I disagreed with his assumptions which helped us to work out more details before the work was done.

We all make assumptions. As leaders we need to test those assumptions by asking others for their view. We need to share our assumptions so that others know what we mean. We need to offer the opportunity for others to question our assumptions. One assumption we can safely make is that no one person knows everything. If we are to create learning organizations we must recognize that we learn by sharing, testing, and challenging our assumptions about work, customers, and each other.