In my freshman year at college, I would swim laps at the pool after class.  The pool was generally very open and many times it was just me and the pretty lifeguard.  I was very conscious that I was often the only swimmer she was guarding while I did my laps.  One day as I left the pool, she asked “do you go to the gym?”  Assuming she must have been impressed by watching me swim all those times, I exaggerated, “Oh yeah sure. All the time.”  At that time I was all of 150 pounds and not much of a specimen.  She said, “Well the gym I am working at is having a special, you should check it out.”

Chagrined, I packed up and left.  My quick assumption was she was opening up a conversation when the reality was she was trying to get new members to a gym. Like this example, some assumptions are innocuous, if not just plain funny.  As leaders and at work, being unaware of assumptions in ourselves and others can cause problems.

Some examples of assumptions:

-“My (new) boss said in the interview they want someone to shake things up, so that’s what they are going to get.” (the assumption that the one comment is the primary desire for the new position)

-“That person is a not a team player.” (the assumption that the interpretation is accurate and/or that conditions are static)

-“Leadership doesn’t want to hear my concerns. They just want to see support.” (the assumption that one cannot raise concerns in a way that can be heard)

-“People around here are just too old school to change.” (the assumption about intent and permanency)

-“My team is doing really great.  I am friendly with all of them.” (the assumption that being cordial means that team is getting everything they need from you)

Ways to check assumptions:

  • Ask yourself what are the facts or behaviors that are supporting your assumption. List up alternative explanations, beliefs and points of view.
  • Get perspective from others.
  • Question the assumptions you see others making (peers and direct reports).

Great leaders are not only looking at their own assumptions but also foster an environment on their team that helps people check their own thinking and keep them out of trouble – kind of like a lifeguard??