Beware Assumptions

Beware Assumptions

Assumptions fascinate me. On the one hand, they are absolutely necessary to our survival and mental stability. For example, right now I am assuming that gravity is going to keep me in my chair, so I don’t have to worry that I am going to float up to the ceiling and slice my head open on the ceiling fan blades. I am also assuming that some percentage of you are going to read this newsletter and find it interesting, or I would stop writing right now.

On the other hand, a lot of conflict arises from assumptions that people make about each other.

To get a bit more technical, in 2006, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine estimated that the human retina can transmit approximately 10 million bits of data per second to your overwhelmed brain. (You can find the press release at And that doesn’t include data that you are receiving from your other four senses. (If you really want to confuse yourself, some Harvard Medical School researchers argue that we actually have more than five senses. perceptions)

I don’t know about you, but I am positive that I cannot process 10+ million bits of data per second. So I do what everyone does, and I just pay attention to a teeny tiny fraction of the data that I receive, and I make a lot of guesses based on what I do pay attention to in order to fill in the gaps.

In other words, in every second of every day, I make assumptions. And that is generally a good thing. However, if I make the wrong assumption, that is a bad thing. By “wrong assumption,” I mean a negative, and frequently incorrect, assumption about someone based on my reaction to or perception of his or her behavior.

Recently I have mediated several work relationships between colleagues who stopped trusting one another. In every single situation, their lack of trust was caused, or at least exacerbated, by assumptions that they made about the other’s actions, opinions, etc. For example, A knew B’s mother was sick. A assumed that B would want to leave early Friday to go visit his mother, so A did not invite B to an important meeting. B, however, had planned to leave on Saturday and he assumed that A did not invite him to the meeting because A wanted to undermine B with the client. And so it went, gathering speed as assumption after assumption piled up.

So what do you do about this?

First, keep making those assumptions that the world will continue to spin on its axis, allowing you to rely on gravity, that spring will follow winter, and that the sun will rise in the East, or you will be truly miserable.

When it comes to negative assumptions about your colleagues, however, test them. This is not that difficult. If A had simply told B about the meeting and asked him what he wanted to do (assuming the meeting couldn’t be moved) then a lot of their subsequent issues might have been avoided. Or, if A didn’t tell B about the meeting, then B could have taken the initiative and asked A why he didn’t invite B.

One tool that is very useful to help people test their assumptions is The Ladder of Inference, which Chris Argyris, who is credited with being one of the founders of organizational learning, created in 1990. The idea behind the Ladder of Inference is that we select data, develop beliefs based on that data, make assumptions about someone’s intentions or mood based on those beliefs, and change our behavior accordingly. In other words, we move up the ladder from not being invited to a meeting to assuming that our colleague is trying to steal our client.

When you find yourself making negative assumptions about someone, try backing yourself down the ladder from what you don’t actually know — “scheming client stealer” — to what you do actually know – there was a meeting and you were not included. Then challenge yourself to see whether there is other actual data supporting your assumption and whether there are other potential explanations for your omission. And if you are still unsure, just ask. This simple step can save you a lot of conflict and unhappiness.


Training Programs

In addition to management consulting, conflict resolution, and executive coaching, I offer tailored programs on a variety of related topics, including how to lead, delegate, communicate more effectively, deal with difficult people, manage conflict in the workplace, manage up, facilitate meetings, manage your career, and network. Please let me know if there are other topics in which you are interested. If I don’t already have a program on that topic, I am happy to develop one that meets your needs.