Connecting the dots…

The boons and busts of assumptions

I’m assuming we all know the choice phrase: “Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups.” If you don’t, well there is the problem with assumptions right there.

In my previous article I listed 8 behaviours that contribute to a high performing team. The first on that list is:

  1. Test assumptions and inferences.

It’s first for a reason. Humans have evolved advanced behavioural traits to ensure survival on the wild plains of Africa. We are great at pattern recognition, until we’re not. Our assumptions and inferences are examples of our application of pattern recognition. When we see someone behaving in a certain way, we review our memory for events that match that behaviour, then we infer the reason behind the current behaviour from the reasoning behind the historical behaviour. Many times our assumptions are correct, (After all, we did manage to survive this long!) however that’s not always the case. In our modern world, cause and effect can be a lot more complex than: “see a rustle in the bush – must be a lion! – run away and climb tree immediately!” In a business team context we are faced with people from many walks of life, cultural backgrounds and personal experiences. We also have the issue that language doesn’t fully express the nuances of what’s really going on in our thoughts, and that’s not even taking into consideration that many people in our teams are not even communicating in their native language. Put this all together and it becomes obvious why working in a corporate environment can often resemble a war zone.

But it doesn’t have to be. A lot of conflict can easily be avoided by making sure that the initial messages exchanged between people are understood properly. This is where the behaviour of testing assumptions comes into play.

Practically, there are 2 steps to this process:

  1. Becoming aware of the assumptions and inferences you’re making; and
  2. Testing these assumptions with the other party in a way to minimise defensiveness.

Becoming aware is the most difficult. We’re remarkable good at seeing when others are making assumptions but not so good at observing it in ourselves. Understanding the Ladder of Inference makes this process a lot easier. If you understand the steps you go through to come to a decision based on the data that has been supplied, you can stop and question yourself at any point on the ladder.

Testing these assumptions with the other party then becomes easier.  You first replay what you’ve seen or heard and ask whether they see it differently. Then you play back the assumptions or inferences you’ve made based on that data. If they see it the same way, you are at least seeing or understanding the situation in the same way. If it’s different, you have the opportunity to clarify the situation.

This technique helps both parties realise they’re at least looking at the same hymn-sheet. Whether or not everyone wants to sing that particular hymn is another issue. You may still need to have a difficult conversation.







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