The Truth about Assumptions

We all know the infamous saying about assumptions, and it has given assumptions a bad reputation. In fact, I have discovered that some of the best leaders have assumptions that empower them in their work and in their lives. Let’s take a look at a few of those empowering assumptions.

Assumption 1: There’s More to the Story

Always assume that whatever someone tells you is not the full story. This is not about being suspicious, it’s about uncovering the truth. Great journalism is a good example of this. When journalists assume there is more to the story, they ask probing questions to find out what is really going on.

This assumption is a great tool in the workplace because problem solving is critical. By assuming that there is a bigger story behind the story, you can remember to ask a lot of questions to get to the heart of the matter. Approach employees and coworkers like a journalist simply looking for the real story. Journalists are out to get the truth, not to make accusations. Great leaders get to the truth.

This approach can also help to solve genuine conflict. Think about a time you tried to solve a problem with your partner or a friend. When people are upset, they may use inappropriate language or the wrong tone, and then you are likely to react by shutting down the conversation. This is how and why we remain mired in the same problems. An effective way to stop this is to think to yourself, “There is probably more to this story. I’m going to let this pass and then get to the real issue.” When you can sidestep the reaction, you don’t get hooked and you’re empowered to continue the conversation later and resolve the conflict.

Assumption 2: Good Intentions

I’ve never heard anyone say, “Listen. Don’t tell anybody, but I’m trying to really screw things up here.” In reality, most everyone is trying to do the best they can with what they have. By assuming that everyone has good intentions, you will use a better tone in conversations with them — and tone has five times the impact that our actual words do.

This assumption encourages people to open up in conversation, whereas assuming ill intent shuts down conversation. Making this assumption doesn’t mean ignoring problems. Not at all. It simply specifies that you will approach people about problems by assuming they have good intentions. This helps to build relationships and resolve issues.

Think about a classic interaction that occurs in homes on a daily basis. Your kids are down in the basement and you assume they’re up to no good. So you say, “What are you doing down there?” and your tone is accusatory because you think they’re doing something wrong. It’s easy to see how assumptions can tear at the fabric of our relationships.

In the workplace, great leaders assume that employees want to do their best. In making that assumption, great leaders actually help their employees to do just that. And when something does go wrong, employees have greater freedom to communicate openly and honestly about the real problems because the leaders assume good intent. Open, honest communication means problems get solved faster.

Assumption 3: You Could Be Wrong

Have you ever met somebody who assumes that they are always right? These are self-righteous people, and they have the power to shut down teamwork, a whole organization, and a home. They’re difficult to deal with because they’re basically saying, “I have nothing to learn,” and they don’t ask questions.

But if you make the empowering assumption that you may be wrong, then you are going to probe and ask questions—because you don’t think you already know all the answers. Of course, asking questions is not enough because that can be done disingenuously; you have to listen to the answers and believe you really might learn something.

I call believing we may be wrong the humble assumption. This is where we say to ourselves, “Life has so much to offer and people are really wonderful and I’m going to learn from them.” This builds relationships and teamwork, thereby enabling innovation and problem solving.

When you are entrenched in familiar problems and you don’t know why, check your assumptions. They operate under the radar and undermine us without our knowledge. Great leaders empower themselves with beneficial assumptions to the benefits of their employees and their organization’s innovation, growth, and profit.