Assumption in the Workplace (a Deadly Combination)

By Jennifer Craig | January 18, 2013

Everyone’s lives are made up of assumptions from the time they rise each morning until they go to bed each night. Those opinions can range from broader thoughts like, “the sun will come up tomorrow” to “next week will be much like this week” or then to simpler assumptions like “my grocery store will have our brand of coffee; the kids will leave for school at the same time as yesterday; I have air in my tires; and my car will start today.” Every day, people make hundreds if not thousands of assumptions without realizing it. In fact, it would be difficult to function without them. When assumptions are not fulfilled, reactions are anger, frustration, or an assumption (once again) that something just went wrong (but actually, maybe something went right).

Humans base all of those assumptions on previous events with similar outcomes. The truth is that there are no guarantees of anything in life. Yet, we maneuver through our lives assuming outcomes. Silly as all of this seems, if we imagine a clean slate and plan our day without guarantees of outcomes, we would all be stressed. How would we explain what our next steps would be or the outcomes we expected if we had nothing from which to gauge them? Unfortunately, those same assumptions spill over into every aspect of our lives.

How many of us are guilty of making assumptions only to find later that we were wrong? The workplace is definitely not a place where assumptions should be made and/or acted upon. There is an old idiom that says to assume “makes an ass of you and me.” In essence that is true but it is still far too simple to think (assume) we can operate without assumptions.

What is an assumption? It is something that is taken as fact when there is no proof; often preconceived misconceptions about a situation, person, groups, or task. Often it is based on past experiences or communications with others.

How can assumptions be deadly on the job?

Stereotyping. This can Lead to Major Problems and Regrets

  • Assumptions made regarding gender – Women are the weaker sex; Women are better at making the coffee; Men are better in math; Men are mechanical by nature; Women who have been staying at home with children are not in touch with the working world; etc. (Women’s Rights Activists and EEO will have a heyday with these thought/actions)
  • Assumptions made regarding age – Seniors aren’t as quick to learn today’s technology as the younger population. Stop! Bill Gates isn’t a young chicken nor was Steve Jobs (granted they began young, but their brains were still popping); Young people aren’t interested in working. All they want to do is play games, text, or goof off; Seniors aren’t as quick on their feet as their younger counter parts. Even if that were true, how important is it, towards accomplishing the expected results? If they can accomplish as much using the phone or from their desks, does it matter? Besides, there are many active seniors who beat their juniors at tennis, hiking, swimming, yoga and golf.
  • Assumptions made regarding minorities, education levels, or household income – “Those people don’t want to work; It is difficult for certain minorities to learn quickly; Their culture keeps them from learning that (whatever “that” is supposed to mean); It’s out of their realm of understanding;” etc.

Communication is Key

Avoid jumping to conclusions when listening or speaking (writing is included here as well). In the workplace, there is a phrase, “Circle of Assumptions,” which refers to an orderly way to make assumptions, beginning with the data and ending with conclusions (without jumping from beginning to end). Since people tend to make assumptions without going through this problem solving methodology, the Circle provides a way to sort through the information logically (interrupting, evaluating, and clarifying) to arrive at competent assumptions.

For example: Fred tells his boss that they can’t afford to attend the Chamber’s Business Product Show since it is $4,000 and adds that they attended the year before for just $200 and the turnout was terrible; they made no sales; and it wasn’t worth the time or effort. Fred is making a few assumptions without providing all of the evidence on the table for review: Assumption 1) The company can’t afford $4,000; 2) Since the turnout was terrible last year, it will be this year (regardless of price, venue, location, or whatever circumstances were then); 3) Since nothing was reported on contacts made vs sales and whether any of those contacts bought at a later date, the information was not clear and an assumption was made that the event was worthless all the way around; and 4) Other factors were not presented as to why it has gone up to $4,000 from $200 (perhaps a keynote speaker, etc. will make the difference, leading names in the industry will be presenting, the venue includes national/international involvement). It is also possible that more money has been spent advertising, the location is superior, etc.

  • Communication is very important to operations, how the business is run, what we say to the customer, and the list goes on. Since how communication is delivered effects response, we, as human beings, need to throw out assumptions when processing information. We need to verify where it came from, who was behind it, and do our research before acting upon it. Every day we talk out of turn like, “They closed the business because sales were down and customers got fed up with their service.” Perhaps the business closed because of poor money management, a divorce between principal owners, or health. Once something is communicated as fact, it can never be retrieved. Those comments are like feathers in the wind, spread about until it is impossible to pick them all up (or retract).
  • Assumptions can hurt the business when employees arbitrarily toss them around without being mindful of facts. As employers, it is wise to discuss this topic with employees. Most meetings have to do with production, processes, productivity, profit margins, customer services, but rarely do employers discuss communication of assumptions and how deadly it can be to motivation, productivity and the bottom line, profit.

Decision Making Requires Good Information.

It is easy to see how assumptions can injure that process. Following with communication (from where information comes), businesses need to be careful about making decisions. Again, all the facts (not assumptions) need to be examined and researching potential outcomes.

  • Marketing is an area where businesses spend a lot of money. Most small businesses cannot afford to pay a large marketing firm to research marketing strategies for them; however, they cannot also afford to lose marketing dollars by making bad choices. Market research takes time but it is well worth it to get as many “facts” as possible in order to make logical and hopefully systematic assumptions about placing those hard-earned dollars toward marketing. This is where testing is important.
  • Hiring and firing are other areas where assumptions can be crucial. When hiring, we need to always check references, thoroughly. We need to test applicants, whenever possible, to check their knowledge and skills. These do not always have to be large tests. We need to verify the facts and try to make the decision based on the best evidence available. Likewise, firing works the same way. The facts are crucial because it can hurt an individual’s career, self esteem, and income. Naturally, we need to know the facts and have them verified/documented.
  • Expansion of the business is an area where assumptions can make or break the business. Often businesses think they are doing great in one location so expansion makes sense. They are assuming they will do as well at a second location. Businesses need to realize that the first location has to support the second location until it is profitable (which could take two years or more). Even though it is a second location, it is also its own competition. The same customers might be shopping at the second location (reducing sales at the first location) so businesses need to “know” that the second location is truly needed and that it will increase sales (at both locations).

The discussion of assumptions could go on forever. Since we make them so frequently, we rarely stop to think about being controlled by them. Hopefully, this will make us stop and think about our actions based on assumptions. Instead of their ruling us, we should be ruling them.

About the Author

Jennifer Craig

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