When people ask me what I do for a living, and I tell them that I am a business psychologist, it is not unusual for me to hear “Gosh, we could really do with a psychologist at work.” Colourful stories concerning people, events and relationships usually follow, almost always describing how someone (a colleague, a boss, a team even) is responsible for making working life impossible.
Since I love talking about work and relationships, I usually start asking questions regarding the issue at hand in order to understand what was communicated before, during and after difficult interactions and ineffective exchanges with others.
What often surprises me is not what is generally exchanged between the parties involved, but rather how much of this exchange is assumed and not communicated. The guy from finance assumes that we have read an important email because it was sent as urgent, a client assumes that we will meet that deadline because we have not said “no,” a colleague assumes that a remark made by a team member at the meeting was intended as hurtful, and a boss assumes that you must be happy with your current salary because you have not asked for a pay rise in years. Considering these examples, the consequences of assumptions at work are often disastrous. People don’t show up at meetings when expected, feelings are bruised, relationships damaged and projects not completed on time; when this happens, disappointment rules everywhere.
The dictionary defines assumption as “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.” I consider them as safety nets designed to shut down alarm bells that are triggered by uncertain and ambiguous circumstances. Very often, an assumption is just a guess in disguise.
Since assumptions are so risky, why do we rely on them so much?
First, not many people like to have their beliefs and views challenged. When we attempt to validate our assumptions, we are also exposing ourselves to some degree of vulnerability and the fact that our truth could be in fact a gross misinterpretation. It is easier to stick with what makes sense in our mind, rather than having our truth destroyed and feeling that invisible dent in our self-esteem.
Second, we all have deeply ingrained mental modes built inside ourselves, unique and systematic ways of interpreting the world around us that condense our thinking, feeling and perceiving into an overall subjective experience. We tend to believe that the world we experience is as it is, simply because we see it that way. Since our mental models are shaped by filters such as biology, language, culture, experiences, and of course personality, it is easy to see that there may be as many mental models as there are faces. To refer to a famous quote, it really does seem that “we don't see things as they are; we see them as we are.”
Assumption is also relevant to motivational drivers, i.e. the factors that drive and sustain the behaviour of people at work. We often assume that what motivates us will inevitably motivate others, and perhaps the most common assumption is that everyone is motivated by money. However, employees’ values and motivational drivers are often invisible and hard to detect – people just don’t go to work telling you what motivates them or disclosing what they value the most. It is therefore often assumed that simply because we work for the same organization, then we must clearly share the same values.
So, in a world filled with a great deal of ambiguity and characterised by individual experiences and interpretations, how can we try to gain a more comprehensive understanding of others and ourselves?
My advice is simple – instead of assuming, just ask; don't be afraid to communicate, enquire and validate further. Be also prepared to (actively) listen to what others have to say.
True, this will expose you, challenge your “truths” and won’t be a solution to all problems, but you may be surprised as to what you can learn from others.
What is the most “costly” assumption you ever made?
Andrea Facchini, MSc.