“The assumption that young people are apathetic, the assumption that Republicans won’t cross over, the assumption that the wealthy care nothing for the poor and that the poor don’t vote, the assumption that African-Americans can’t support the white candidate, whites can’t support the African-American candidate, blacks and Latinos cannot come together. We are here tonight to say that that is not the America we believe in.” —Barack Obama, American Rhetoric (delivered January 26, 2008)
Assumptions are things we take for granted and can be built up over time or can can be created within seconds. Wrong assumptions can separate just about any two individuals. For example, my partner is working late, so he or she must be having an affair. Assumptions can divide cultures, political parties and groups such as Boomers and Millennials – see the strip below.
An assumption can seem to grow out of nothing. But when we take a closer look, we find it’s usually something we learned and embedded into our persona and do not question. In his book, Vital Lies, Simple Truths, Daniel Goleman talks about perception selection, the way we see the world through a frame or lens. The downside is we miss anything that is outside of the frame. Thus our selection of data is our reality and what we “see.” We assume everyone else has the same lens.
This aligns with the thinking of Chris Argyris, who introduced the Ladder of Inference. The Ladder of Inference was subsequently presented in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. It illustrates how our thinking generates pathways of increasing generalizations, that can lead to misguided beliefs and actions. It’s these types of assumptions that become beliefs and are accepted as reality that can really screw things up for us when we act on them.
Based on the work of Chris Argyris, I have called the assumptions thinking process DACBA – Data >> Assumptions >> Conclusions >> Beliefs >> Actions. The DACBA process happens like this:
|I select data – what I “see”
||I make assumptions by adding meaning||I draw conclusions & make inferences||I build beliefs on what I “see”||I act on these beliefs|
|Today is Friday. I receive an email from my manager asking to see me in her office on Monday morning.||I know my manager wants to talk to me about my performance. And they’ve been letting people go—this is going to be tough.||I’m sure she’s been told by the Strategic Leadership team to sort the division out or else.||Despite all the talk about values, when it comes to cutting costs, its last in, first out. She doesn’t even know what I do here . . .||I think I’ll give Rob a call and take him up on that offer he made a few months back. At least he appreciates me.|
The domino-effect of inferences in the Ladder of Inference or the DACBA process results in an action. Although the scenario above is fictional, I am sure something similar plays out every day in many organizations across the world. Imagine the shock when Monday does come around and this person hears from their manager that she is getting a raise because clients are so pleased with the innovative work being done under her watch. How much energy was wasted churning through various scenarios based on insufficient data? How often do you catch yourself doing the same thing?
Checking assumptions – Because our assumptions live at a subconscious or unconscious level, we need to check our assumptions regularly, especially when we need to make a decision or are waiting for an outcome. Our assumptions affect how we work with people. In short, our assumptions influence how we see our world, how we show up and how we serve our clients and each other.
Here is a simple rule: Reflect before you React.
When you pause to reflect on what’s really going on, you need to ask yourself, “What am I noticing, what am I thinking and what am I feeling?” This is part of your Conversational Signature mentioned in my blog – Talking about Sacred Cows at Work. When you get a reading on these questions, ask yourself, “How much of this is actually true?” Or, put another way, “How much of what I am stressing about is fantasy, myth and a construct of my fertile imagination?” You’ll be amazed at how quickly and easily we draw conclusions, make inferences and feed our beliefs that can lead to inappropriate actions.
Once you have Reflected on the four questions above, you can now React appropriately by asking yourself, “What is the best action I can take given the amount of information I have or don’t have?”
Because our assumptions are such powerful drivers and because wrong assumptions can really screw things up, we need to check our assumptions regularly. We need to Reflect before we React.
Dene Rossouw is co-founder of AuthenticDialogue.com and TheIdeasEngine.com in Vancouver, specializing in influencing and innovative solutions. He helps his clients have the necessary conversations of leadership and helps organizations innovate by leveraging the power of employee ideas. He can be reached at 1.778.386.5167.