What Are You Assuming?
Updated: Mar 7, 2019
"A healthy workplace requires us to continually clean up our thinking, and that requires having the right measures in place, effective hiring and people development practices, and a healthy dose of introspection".
We live in a world of imperfect information, compounded by poor communication, misunderstanding and error. There is a lot we don't know; but, arguably worse, a lot we believe we know that is not so. Nevertheless, we make decisions from moment to moment, as we must. We fill in the blanks.
It is worth reminding ourselves often of the wide range of cognitive biases to which we are subject. Bias is present when there is too little or too much information, but even when the flow of information is "just right." Bias can be influenced by historical context, by wishful thinking, or by fear. It is convenient, often even necessary, to make quick judgements based on what we perceive to be plainly accurate, or understand to be obviously correct. Yet even when we are appropriately uncertain, we are often just plainly wrong.
When leaders make incorrect attributions about the intentions or abilities of their team members or others, the effects can be highly damaging. While some may be temporarily motivated to try harder if they believe they have been misunderstood, or even wrongly judged, it is more common for mistrust, or worse, to be the outcome--especially when pervasive, systematic, or unseen biasses are at play. Given our likelihood to be at least partly in error, the leader who is able to evoke trust and build strong teams and collaborations is often that rare individual who has learned to always assume best intentions, and who teaches others to do the same. But such an understanding does not come naturally.
Organizations may be blind to important consequences of leader misjudgments about people, perhaps especially when they have an intense focus on near term performance. While we look to reward high performance or provide correction when things go awry, if we do not also maintain a regular eye on the more difficult to observe leadership traits and their impact--factors such as a pattern of curiosity and testing one's assumptions, or inclusive behaviors that cultivate trust and employee engagement--we risk to be ignorant of critical blindspots and thus to "win the battle but lose the war."
Eventually how people get treated, based in large measure on how they are perceived and judged--or misperceived and misjudged--can come back to haunt the leader who makes biassed judgements or incorrect assumptions. Whether through negative online reviews or word of mouth impacting hiring or retention, failure to build effective collaborations, poor team performance, or even sabotage, errors in how we regard others are not without costs. Even when others respond with kindness and understanding in the face of human error, those who subsequently realize their own misjudgments must live with themselves.
Continually improving our skills at observation, listening, empathy and inclusive behaviors or "cultural sensitivity" is a big part of what can make or break a team. Thinking critically in the face of our own biases is another. Over time, there is a world of difference between the leader who learns to see clearly and builds capability with others and the one who is on a path to destroying team value through mistaken judgements and assumptions..
A healthy workplace requires us to continually clean up our thinking, and that requires having the right measures in place, effective hiring and people development practices, and a healthy dose of introspection.
What are you assuming?