Unspoken Assumptions — How Do You Overcome the Gravitational Pull of Assumptions in Your Organization To Enact Real Change?

  • November 22, 2021
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Assumptions are facts that we decide to accept as true or events that we think will happen without evidence or proof. Assumptions are preconceived misconceptions about a situation, person, group, or task — likely based on past experiences with others. Assumptions might seem harmless (like assuming your commute to work will take 30 minutes), but a lot of damage can be done by confusing assumptions with reality.

It's easy to make assumptions. Assumptions stem from gathering incomplete information about a situation and filling in the blanks to reach a satisfying conclusion. You fill in the blanks with your interpretation of what you see or hear, but these interpretations come from individual past experiences that result in personal biases. As a result, your conclusions often relate to your past experiences and from the information you gather about others. Armed with your information, you connect dots that aren't there.

Assumptions are made about other people when we think we know:

  • What their motives are
  • Where their skills, abilities, competencies (or incompetencies) lie
  • What information they have been given
  • How that information has been understood
  • Whether their goals are aligned with yours

According to Dr. Marcia Sirota in her blog post, The Problem with Making Assumptions, she writes, "Assumptions are 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." When you make assumptions, you forgo communicating at all. That's when things get costly. We are all susceptible to unconscious assumptions about the world around us, but the trick is to remember to check yourself before you assume.

In the workplace, assumptions contribute to miscommunication and frustration. Imagine the time that could be saved by simply having a quick conversation with your boss about an assignment or asking a coworker to clarify questions on a task.

How often are projects delayed because of missed communication opportunities? Working across time zones and between different cultures only further complicates the issue. Afraid of disappointing, teams or project leaders may pretend everything is okay until it isn't. If we wait too long to resolve a pressing issue, it requires more time, effort, and budget to correct the problem.

When it comes to working with consulting clients, assumptions can be just as dangerous. We assume that clients have worked on consulting engagements in the past and therefore understand the framework, timelines, and offerings. We assume meetings will be conducted in a specific cadence. We assume clients are clear on their needs or vision. We assume that our client teams are aligned with their vision, goals, and needs. These common assumptions can get us into hot water if we are not careful. Each client is different and unique.

Each client has a unique way of approaching problems and reaching goals. Going into a client engagement assuming that because client X did it this way, client Y will want it that way can lead to disappointment, lost dollars, and wasted time. It is crucial when starting a project to think carefully about whom you are working with and tailor processes to their specific needs without assuming the client will want it the same way as others in the past.

Some other commonly seen assumptions in the workplace include:

  • Assuming a team member understands a project when they do not.
  • Assuming a task or project's deadline or urgency.
  • Assuming a coworker is upset based on their wording in an email.
  • Assuming everyone received, read, and comprehended the contents of your email the same way.
  • Making assumptions about colleagues based on unconscious biases.

How do you overcome the gravitational pull of assumptions in your organization to enact real change?

Engage in active listening
There are several ways to reduce assumptions and improve communication. Firstly, listen properly — really listen. Take the time when someone is explaining their point of view to consider where they're coming from. It's easy to tune out and assume you know, but you will build a communication bridge if you try to listen constructively.

Master the art of asking questions
Re-learn the art of asking questions. Asking questions helps expand your view of the situation rather than maintaining a narrow focus. Questions can help affirm your understanding to feel more straightforward and confident. At best, asking questions helps to arrive at better conclusions. At worst, they avoid rework later.

Examine the facts
Another way to stop making assumptions and base our understanding on tangible facts is to ask ourselves, "How do I know this constantly?" If you didn't learn it by observing the evidence or obtaining factual information, you're at risk of making an incorrect assumption. So before deciding you "know" something about a coworker, candidate, or client, stop and fact-check your feelings. This process will help you avoid the danger of false assumptions and prevent unnecessary difficulties for yourself and others.

Some simple reminders to catch yourself before you make a false assumption:

  1. Ask (don't assume)
  2. Respond (avoid reacting)
  3. Reconsider (think about it)
  4. Communicate (regularly)
  5. Decide to see positive intentions
  6. Shift from expectation to shared understanding

Instead of assuming, recognize that companies must focus and invest in better communication. Workers rely on manager feedback, direction, and positive reinforcement. Without this communication, job responsibilities are unclear. Poor, ineffective communication also makes it difficult for employees to work closely, collaboratively, and successfully as a team.

Making communication a focal point of your organization can lead to other successes within your business and even boost profits. When employees are fully engaged, they work harder and smarter in ways that drive results, helping your business realize its full potential. According to Paige San Felipe, Principal Consultant in the Workforce Readiness Consulting practice at NTT DATA Services, in her recent blog post The Second Element of the Change Management Journey: Understanding, "Employers who are unsuccessful at understanding the needs and desires of their team members will be left with a disgruntled workforce and face challenges attracting, recruiting, and retaining high-quality talent." Therefore, the impact of understanding and communicating rather than relying on unspoken assumptions is critical.

The rapidly changing workforce underscores the need for human-centric, digital-forward solutions for organizations in all industries. Our Workforce Readiness Consulting practice helps drive organizational success with future-focused talent and change strategies. Learn more about how we help our clients thrive at the human side of business.

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Kathryn Bowen

Kathryn Bowen is a Manager in the Workforce Readiness Consulting practice at NTT DATA Services. Her areas of expertise include business readiness, operations, and talent strategy for clients across numerous industries. Kathryn has more than 12 years of experience in the consulting industry and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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