Assumptions save a lot of time – but the wrong assumptions can lead to disaster. So let me ask you a question – where are your assumptions taking you?

We make assumptions remarkably fast. In a matter of a second or less, you can see something and assume you know what it is and what its characteristics will be. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s an incredibly beneficial thing when you get right down to it. The world would be a very different place if we didn’t see a flame and assume right away that it was hot and that it could hurt us. We’d have to spend all our time identifying that, yes, it is indeed a flame and that, yes, it is hot and will burn us if we touch it. We’d have to do that EVERY TIME we saw a flame. Now expand that notion to all your daily activities—getting out of bed, traversing stairs, taking care of ourselves, cooking food. Without assumptions, we would basically be in an infantile state and have to re-learn how to live every day of our life.

At their most technical, assumptions are a form of pattern recognition that help our brain process and filter the minutiae of life that would otherwise bog us down in the hows and whys of it all. So, at a basic level, assumptions are there to help us get through life quicker. Again, that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to take the brain’s natural abilities and turn them from good to bad in the mere blink of an eye. Case in point: making assumptions about people. It’s scary enough that humans can assume something faster than you can say, “To assume makes an ass out of you and me.” But what’s really alarming is the impact those assumptions can have on the people around you.

As a leader, this notion of assumptions is especially important because it can affect how your team meshes, engages, and works together. Ultimately, it can affect their performance—be it individually or collectively—and even their happiness.

What you assume often comes to be

Think about your team for a moment. What assumptions have you made about the team as a whole or about individual members? Some of those assumptions may be good and some may be bad. The thing is, nine times out of ten, people will behave according to the assumptions we make about them.

If we assume that our teams—or specific members thereof—need constant instruction, direction, and guidance, that’s exactly how they will behave. In essence, our assumptions and the way we manifest them towards our employees, shapes their behaviour. What you assume often comes to be.

The trick

Granted, life is too short NOT to make assumptions. If we didn’t make assumptions, we wouldn’t make it out of bed in the morning, let alone out of the house. The day would be filled with the relentless grind of figuring out even the simplest task again and again.

But let’s assume we could make assumptions about things but didn’t make assumptions about people. Though we could make it out of bed and out of the house every day, we would still have to spend an exorbitant amount of time figuring each other out. This is as much a bad thing as making negative assumptions about people.

The trick, then, is to make assumptions that bring out the best in our employees rather than assumptions that bring out the worst. If we assume that our team wants to do a great job, our behaviour towards them will create the conditions necessary for them to do just that.

This trick applies not just to teams as a whole, but to team members individually. We can assume good things or we can assume bad things about an employee. Either way, what we assume often comes to be.

Wouldn’t it be better to make positive assumptions and bring out the best in your employees? Yes, we may occasionally be disappointed when someone—or a number of someones—takes advantage of our good assumptions. But remember this one thing: the environment we create by assuming our team WANTS to do a great job will deliver many, many times more benefits than we could ever lose when the tiny minority who really don’t care take the mickey. Boil that down to its basic properties and you’ll see that the odds are in our favour to make good assumptions rather than bad assumptions…even if we may get burned once in a while.

Assume they’re stars – and they will be

We are all stars in something. The take away from all this is that, as leaders, we get the best results by assuming our team members are stars. By assuming that they want to do a good job. By assuming they are trustworthy. By assuming they are full of great ideas. And by assuming they want to excel.

So take care what you assume. Always look for the good, because if you assume you are surrounded by idiots, you will be.

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Peter Anderton

Author: Peter Anderton

A sought after coach and change agent, Peter has spent many years in Organisational Development, focusing on developing high performance leadership teams, executive coaching, strategy and change. He builds relationships quickly and is as comfortable in the boardroom as he is at ‘grass roots’. Known for his integrity, energy and a real passion for making things happen, he has a uniquely direct yet supportive style that delivers.

Peter is a qualified NLP master practitioner, a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and a Chartered Engineer.