Small Mistakes, Big Consequences: The Power of Assumption

by Anne Baum

For this inaugural installment of Small Mistakes, Big Consequences, my goal is to take on and raise awareness of behavior that keeps each of us from being the best possible version of ourselves. Each and every day, we interact with others with the goal of achieving something. From simple social interaction to sales or influence, our interactions generally have a purpose, and many subtle behaviors and actions keep us from executing at our highest level. This series is designed to raise awareness of these behaviors while providing tips and solutions on how to overcome and work around these self-induced barriers.

Let’s start with assumption…not assumption in the biblical sense but making assumptions or assuming something and using that assumption as a basis of fact in the decision-making process.

Here’s the definition, according to

a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof

The end of that definition epitomizes why assumptions are dangerous and why they regularly become barriers to success. When we assume something, we don’t have proof that it is TRUE! It is based upon rumor, conjecture, gossip, our own personal opinion, and many other factors, but it leaves verification of the truth out of the exercise. And, each and every one of us do it every day – often to our detriment.

How often do you fail to act because you assume the outcome? How often do you fail to ask a question because you assume the answer? My gut feeling tells me that the answer to both of those questions is, often, very often!

So, what do we do to overcome this natural tendency?

  1. As Ronald Reagan once said, “Trust, but verify” – if you think something is true and accurate; take the time to verify that it is so! Ask the actual person who can give you a reliable answer, the person about which you are making an assumption!
  2. Challenge your team members when they share a collective assumption by asking: did we actually ask this person or audience this question? I have often been in meetings where we are assuming the opinion of a group of people. Yet, we haven’t actually asked them their opinion in order to verify the assumption. One thing that we all learned by asking this question of each other is that many of our assumptions were actually based on our own internal assumptions that we shared with each other, and most had a longstanding foothold in our culture, so we were making decisions based on old information. Once we broke ourselves of this habit, and actually verified the real facts, we were able to make much better and more accurate decisions. And we were able to do so in a timely manner because we had opened up the conversation, and information flowed more quickly and smoothly.
  3. When someone brings an issue to your attention, and they are looking for advice on how to deal with an issue, first ask if they heard or experienced the information firsthand or if they heard it from another source. If the information came from another source, it is critical to direct the person to the source that has the information to determine the real facts. Every time you receive information from another source, remember that the information is delivered to you based upon the biases of that individual’s perception of the facts. It is natural for people to “spin” their perception of a conversation based on what’s important to them, and by relying solely on opinion, you run the risk of missing facts that could completely change the situation.
  4. Monitor yourself! Are you making decisions and forming opinions based on fact, or rumor and assumptions? What are you assuming without verifying? This is especially important in situations of conflict. Have the difficult conversation with the person who has the facts – be courageous and find out if there’s simply a misunderstanding based on assumption or if there is truly an issue to resolve. You may find that many times it’s the former, rather than the latter, and having the conversation to clarify only makes your relationship stronger!
  5. Assumption is a powerful enemy in our decision making. Yet, it is one that can be reduced and even eliminated by raising your awareness and the awareness of your team on the topic. Search for the truth, get the facts, have the difficult conversations, and you will be amazed at the success that will follow!

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