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Since Nothing Is Wrong, Can We Assume Everything is Right?

By John McGuinness

Making assumptions is bad, right? The standard answer is ‘yes,’ because most of us have had those moments when we made a decision based on a certain assumption, and then discovered the decision turned out to be wrong because our assumption was wrong. Not good. And to make matters worse, the person pointing out our mistaken assumption probably also felt the need to become a linguist and write out “assume” as a three syllable word on a nearby white board. (Unfortunately, we know the punch line to that one.)

As leaders, it’s considered bad practice to take business matters for granted. We know that when someone is called out for making a bad assumption, he or she is being accused of not asking critical questions to get important information in service of the organization’s goals.

But are all assumptions bad? In other words, to prevent more unsolicited linguistic lessons on how to break down the word “assume,” should we question everything we encounter and take nothing for granted?

Consider this example.
A few years ago during a morning car-pool commute with a colleague, I was drinking a cup of coffee from a drive-thru. I never actually saw the coffee itself because it was in a paper cup with a lid on it. As I’ve done hundreds times before (actually, perhaps thousands), I drank the cup dry, but this time my last sip contained some coffee grounds. I don’t particularly enjoy the taste of coffee grounds, so I was vocal in letting my colleague know what had just happened.

“That’s what you get for assuming the coffee was fine,” he said with that certain smugness of a person who doesn’t drink coffee.

Of course, that’s not the response I was looking for. My initial, unvocalized retort was a “Yeah, I should have poured the coffee into a clear beaker and checked for sediments and then have run a toxicology test.” Instead, I kept my mouth shut and drove on. After all, I had done what any reasonable person would do: I observed nothing out of the ordinary in the coffee place (as usual, it was clean and the server was courteous), and the cup and lid looked pristine.  Nothing appeared wrong, so I assumed everything was okay. 

As we drove on, I continued pondering these matters about making assumptions. I noticed that my colleague wasn’t concerned at all when I drove through green-light intersections without slowing down to make absolutely sure that the cross-traffic would not run their red lights and crash into us. We approached the intersections, saw nothing was amiss, and drove through with the relative confidence that our assumptions about the way people obey the traffic laws were valid.

It struck me that if we didn’t make hundreds of assumptions a day about navigating through our everyday world, we’d be stopping at all green light events and never get anywhere.

In light of the sheer volume of things we need to accomplish in a given day, making assumptions can be useful. At a fundamental level, almost all of our assumptions work almost all of the time.

Unfortunately, since we make so many correct assumptions every day based on “nothing seems wrong,” it’s easy to get into the habit of not asking probing questions when we should—especially when our business goals seem to be cruising along on auto-pilot. In those cases when a project seems to be going well, during a meeting we might ask, “Does anyone have any problems or concerns?” Quite often—and for a variety of reasons— the answer will be a “no,” and we’ll move on because we’ve reinforced an assumption that since nothing was wrong then everything must be okay.

But then comes the kicker a few days, weeks, or even months later: A serious problem within the project, seemingly out of the blue, but painfully obvious in hindsight, blindsides us. And then we get into some “what ifs” that come down to “If only I had asked the right questions back then.”

In the case of an organizational initiative where nothing is overtly wrong, one way we  leaders can challenge our assumptions is to ask questions like: “Is there any chance people are reluctant to say what’s really going on?”  Or, “do I encourage the people on my team to challenge things they have doubts about?”.  Depending on the answers, we may need to create a safe atmosphere where assumptions are identified and, if need be, tested.

So, to get back to the issue of whether or not people are correct when they spell “assume” as a three-syllable word, we’ve got to think about the consequences of the assumptions we’re making.  When is it time to see that nothing is wrong and move on through the intersection, and when is it time to see that nothing is wrong and slow down and ask questions? It’s okay to get a sip of coffee grounds every 6 months or so, but it’s not okay to let your team fail.

Training Resource: The Abilene Paradox. Instead of assuming everyone is on-board with a decision, leaders must make it safe for people to speak up if they think the team is headed in the wrong direction. This all-time bestseller drives home a powerful message about the importance of getting everyone’s honest opinion.

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