Episode 4: Assumptions

In this series, we're focusing on nourishing a culture of leadership by applying timeless principles of life to the art of leadership. In this episode, we're exploring the principle of abundance and how cultivating a belief in an abundant universe can impact your leadership and the results you experience in your organization.

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Leadership Development Focus: Assumptions

You may be asking what assumptions have to do with leadership development?’  We offer you the opportunity to consider skillfulness with assumptions as important in your leadership development.  Thank you for making use of this opportunity. Our intention is to support you in developing your leadership.

Every one of us makes assumptions and most operating decisions are based on assumptions. Yes, the operating decisions may also include a basis on collected data. Assumptions still play a big role even in decisions made from evidence-based data.  If it is true that assumptions come into play in our decisions, it is also true that it is helpful to be skillful in working with assumptions, your own assumptions, and the assumptions of others.

To get started on this topic of assumptions, we offer a working definition: assumptions are thoughts held and acted on that have not been tested to be true or false. In other words, a person hears a concept, accepts it as valid, and acts on it. Assumptions are neither good nor bad.

The challenge is that people get into a lazy habit of not checking out assumptions before acting on them. A lot of energy and time can be wasted when assumptions are not tested for validity.

Assumptions can generate both expected and unexpected results. It is possible to have two completely different assumptions at the same time. Simultaneous assumptions that conflict with each other lead to confusion and inconsistent outcomes. Traveling down a path based on false assumptions wastes time, energy and is not productive. To achieve consistency and desirable outcomes, before acting from an assumption it is best to name the assumption and test its validity.

A lot of times in work situations, people make assumptions about what their boss or employer wants. They go forward with the expenditure of energy, working very hard based on the untested assumptions made that have not been validated. They may then discover, at the end of all of this effort, that what they have done is not what was wanted. This leads to a lot of disappointment as well as wasted effort and time.

How Do We Develop The Capacity For Working With Assumptions?

Everyone has personal responsibility with assumptions, should they take up this responsibility, to name assumptions and test their validity before acting on them. It could take a very short time to ask oneself “is this a belief or assumption that I have about what is wanted, or is it true?” If there is an uncertainty that it is true, it is a sign that it is best to validate the assumption. If we don’t take up the responsibility for testing our assumptions, no one will. No one else knows what is going on in our heads and what we are assuming. Each person has their own responsibility to test their assumptions to verify that they are working on things based on what is true.

Many people do not do take up this responsibility, especially in carrying out their roles in their organizations. It is not something they are taught to do or even invited to do. In some organizations, when employees seek to validate assumptions, there could be repercussions and in some they could be fired.

For consistent and desirable outcomes, it is advantageous to ask whether the assumption of what is to be done is actually what is wanted, and in doing so to also test the assumptions about the desired outcome. In some organizations, this is very scary to do.  And so people tend to work without testing their assumptions, sometimes discovering to their dismay that they are not on target at all. This is a difficult predicament and drains the energy needed for a high performing organization. If it is unacceptable to test assumptions, if in fact people are told not to make assumptions, getting into action with untested assumptions becomes the norm.

It is false to believe it is possible not to make assumptions. It is also false to believe that people are not making assumptions fairly constantly, including yourself.

To develop organization-wide skillfulness in working with assumptions, leadership must raise awareness about assumptions. An organization-wide belief system that it is okay to test assumptions needs to become the norm.  It is advantageous if an environment is created in which people feel safe to test and validate assumptions. People need to be encouraged and safe to say ‘just because you said “x” does it really mean what I assume you mean?’ This requires the leadership capacity and skillfulness to work with assumptions. Needing this capacity and skillfulness applies to formal leadership and also to informal leadership throughout the organization. Whether from a vertical hierarchical perspective or a peer to peer perspective, people in an organization need to feel that they won’t be punished for testing assumptions.

Most people are not raised in their families and cultures to be able to ask questions about their assumptions, to test their assumptions for validity. This affects their personal lives and very much affects how they operate in leadership, in the workplace, and in any organizations that they belong to. If you are in a workplace and are not in a formal leadership role, consider asking your formal leader “is it okay to test my assumptions with you before I take my time and energy to do the task” or “I think this is what I heard you say, would you tell me if it is true and is it really what you meant.” It does not need to be more complicated than this.

Developing Your Capacity to Work with Assumptions

You need to grow the capacity to question the information you are given and to determine if it is valid and true or invalid and false before you act on it. This is true for leadership of your personal life as well as leadership in your organization.

  1. Take some time for personal reflection about what you need to do to develop your own mindset to handle the testing of assumptions.
  2. A helpful exercise is to find a learning partner to help you grow your capacity for working with assumptions. The task of your learning partner is to listen to you, clarify that they heard what you just said and then ask you “is this an assumption or belief?” and “how do you know this is true?” When you hear your partner making a statement as though it is fact, pause and think about whether it is an assumption or whether you know it to be a true fact. At work, find a learning partner who is someone that you would normally work along with, be engaged with somehow. As you work together, you develop your capacity and skills together.
  3. At home, find a learning partner, maybe your romantic partner, who is also willing to work on developing their skills and capacity to work on their assumptions.  Together you can make this work concrete and real. If you are doing this practice at home, it is helpful to begin by having a conversation about what you have learned about this topic of assumptions and to state your intention of working to learn to validate assumptions. It can be disconcerting to family members if without warning you suddenly start changing your pattern from one of accepting assumptions as valid to one of testing whether the assumptions are valid.
  4. Eventually, after doing this exercise with a learning partner, you won’t need the learning partner because you will have developed your own inner talk after you hear something of ‘is this a fact or is this an assumption? How do I know this is true?’. You are likely to find yourself doing this even with your own thoughts that you have accepted as fact and engage in the same inner conversation about your own thoughts ‘is this a fact or is it an assumption? How do I know it is true?’ The answers about the many assumptions you are basing your life choices and decisions on are likely to surprise you. You may be the one to discover that an entire group of people that you are engaged with or working with are all working from an untested assumption.

Strengthening Your Capacity to Work with Assumptions

Once you have increased your personal capacity for working with assumptions, you are ready to offer leadership for others in working with assumptions. Remember everyone has assumptions. We are usually not conditioned to test our assumptions. As you exercise your leadership in working with assumptions, you assist the people around you in developing awareness about assumptions, their own assumptions, and the assumptions of others. You assist people in developing awareness of personal and professional operating choices made based on assumptions. As people develop greater awareness about assumptions, they become more personally empowered. It is actually not possible to have personal empowerment without skillfulness and capacity for recognizing and validating assumptions.

Take some time for personal reflection on the topic of assumptions. What do you need to do to be comfortable with the idea of creating an environment for allowing assumptions to be named and tested for validity?

A great resource for in-depth work with personal assumptions is the work of Byron Katie called The Work.  You can find more information on her website: http://thework.com.

If it makes sense to you, add growing your capacity in working with assumptions into your personal leadership development plan.

About the Developing Leadership Series

We work the Genuine Contact way, nourishing a culture of leadership, applying timeless principles of life to the art of leadership. In this learning series, Birgitt Williams and Rachel Bolton are sharing our own wisdom and insights about the art of leadership. We'll be inviting you to consider your own experiences in life and business so far, and how you want to further your leadership development with this theme.

In this series, our intention is to offer you unique opportunities to continually develop your leadership. By developing your leadership you expand your potential. Your life changes and you gain greater insights and capacity for leading your life. Your leadership of your team, organization, congregation, and even your family brings about possibility thinking, transcending ordinary thinking and ordinary results.

In each episode, we will be exploring one key principle. You will hear our own experiences and understanding of each of these timeless principles.  We'll suggest simple activities you can do to develop your own leadership by working with these principles too. Find more episodes below and subscribe to receive future episodes by email.

Rachel Bolton
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We specialize in developing leaders, teams, and organizations for the new leadership paradigm of "leading so people will lead". In this series, our Dalar team of Birgitt Williams and Rachel Bolton are sharing our own wisdom and insights about the art of leadership.
Rachel Bolton
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