The Danger of Making False Assumptions

It’s human nature to make assumptions. You wouldn’t knowingly sit in a chair with only three good legs, yet you probably assume facts every day at work, with friends, in traffic, at the store, or at home. The danger of making false assumptions at work is that, like sitting in a chair with one leg missing, it can cause all sorts of workplace difficulties which a fact-based check might avoid.

Let’s say, for example, you need something from a co-worker, boss, or direct report…but you assume he or she is out to deliberately take advantage of, compete with, or hurt you. The way you approach that person will likely be defensive or possibly even hostile. At best, your conversation won’t build a bridge; at worst, it might burn one, resulting in lingering damage to a previously workable relationship. Now you may never get what you need from that person, and any hope of future cooperation and teamwork is lost.

Another pitfall can be the assumptions you make during an interview with a well-dressed, articulate candidate. Because of your own honest nature and first impression of the candidate, you might assume that your candidate is capable, honest, and straightforward. This might cause you to ask shallow interview questions, based on your gut feeling, resulting in your gaining less information than you would have gleaned had you felt more skeptical. You may even forego asking behavioral interview questions, or you may make an offer before doing reference checks and drug testing. The result may be a whole plethora of managerial and morale problems in your workplace, ending in a costly mis-hire.

In the financial arena, perhaps someone owes your company money. Paul and Sarah Edwards of assert that your emotions about the debt shape the assumptions you make, which in turn affect the manner in which you seek to get paid. Below are three scenarios they portray as an example, with possible outcomes:

1. You feel the customer is trying to get away with as much as he can, and that you may never get paid unless you take him to court. You may project anger, which may make others put up their guard and respond in anger. You may lose the customer.
2. You imagine the customer might feel badly about being behind and is having a hard time making ends meet. You wonder if you could make some kind of arrangement to help out. Your empathetic feelings may help you to negotiate a payment solution…or maybe not, but you won’t have burned a bridge.
3. You wonder why you’re having difficulty getting paid, so you plan to contact the person and find out if there’s a problem you can fix. Not making any assumptions but just being curious may help you discover a problem of some kind that you can work to solve, retaining the customer’s goodwill and future relationship.

Is it ever helpful to make assumptions? Probably not! Dr. Marcia Sirota describes assumptions as that inner world that colors the way we see and understand our world and distorts things for us. Making false assumptions causes us to become less grounded in reality and more prone to creating problems for ourselves and others.

To stop making assumptions and base our understanding on tangible facts, Dr. Sirota recommends asking yourself, “How do I know this?” If you didn’t learn it through observing the evidence or through obtaining factual information, then you’re at risk of making an incorrect assumption. So before deciding you “know” something about a co-worker, candidate, or client, stop and fact-check your feelings. This will help you avoid the danger of false assumptions and prevent unnecessary difficulties for yourself and others.

Reference: “When You Assume…”, The Costco Connection, July 2015.

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