Leaders with Too Many Assumptions


Good Thursday morning! Welcome to summer. I hope you have plans to take a break and downshift between now and Labor Day (87 days away).

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Can you remember a time recently when you made a decision or took action based on faulty information?
The RAND Corporation recently completed a study in which they concluded, “U.S.-based journalism has gradually shifted away from objective news and offers more opinion-based content that appeals to emotion and relies heavily on argumentation and advocacy.
“Our research provides quantitative evidence for what we all can see in the media landscape: Journalism in the U.S. has become more subjective and consists less of the detailed event- or context-based reporting that used to characterize news coverage,” said Jennifer Kavanagh, a senior political scientist and lead author of the report, which is second in a series of research into the phenomenon of “Truth Decay,” the declining role of facts and analysis in civil discourse and its effect on American life.
Unfortunately, journalists aren’t the only ones who drift from fact-based objectivity. Leaders do this too. But instead of “argumentation and advocacy,” leaders rely on – Assumptions.

  • as·sump·tion: a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.

Notice it in yourself in the coming hours. I am confident that today will be like every other day. I will hear leaders making assumptions about people and projects “without proof” – without a complete understanding of the facts. And I will too!
Here’s the reality: leaders have to make assumptions. Leaders have to make decisions and take action without always having complete and foolproof information. They don’t know a client’s budget for buying a new service; they don’t know what interest rates will be in six months; they don’t know when a competitor will release a new product. These are all legitimate reasons for leaders to make assumptions so they can plan and move forward.
Research has shown that our brain automatically fills in the gaps (where we lack facts) when we have a problem to solve. However, our brain cares more about having something to fill the gap, than it does about whether or not that gap-filler is accurate. Our brain just wants the satisfaction of plugging the gap – via Assumption – so it can solve one problem and move on to the next one.
The result: a large portion of our assumptions are less than 100% accurate. At best, they are only partially true. Yet we use these inaccurate assumptions to make leadership decisions!
Pause to think about assumptions you are making as you contemplate a difficult problem or person.
Making assumptions is particularly problematic between people. We make assumptions about another person to try and understand why they behave the way they do, or to fit our narrative about a situation. I spend a lot of time as a coach helping leadership teams remove assumptions about one another, get the facts, and communicate in ways that are transparent and true.
Brene Brown offers a simple technique for doing this. Approach the person and say, “I’m making up a story in my head that says [fill in the blank]. Is that accurate?”
If you are a leader, I challenge you to notice your assumptions, and have the courage and patience to pursue facts, especially when making assumptions about your teammates.
And we would all do well to more carefully choose our news sources!

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On a summer note. I recently compiled a reading list for a leader who wants to study leadership. A favorite book of mine, and also a fun read for summer, is The Last Place on Earth, about the race between the two men who led expeditions to be first to reach the South Pole (the better leader got there first!).
And here’s a summer reading list for leaders from one of my Alma Maters.
What is your favorite book on leadership and why do you like it? Write me.

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Lead well.