Everyone has heard the saying that when we “assume,” we make an “ass out of u and me.” Yet, in our everyday lives, we have to make assumptions or we can’t function. I have to assume you will stop at the red light as I go through the green light. I have to assume that I can use my credit card at the store without the number being stolen. I have to assume that my Facebook page won’t be hacked, or stop using Facebook.
The same is true in our work lives. I assume that if I’m your employee, you will pay me according to schedule, and will pay me what we agreed to when I took the job. I assume that if I do good work, you will not fire me for no reason. I assume that you will provide me with enough tools to do my job.
But we also make other, less reasonable assumptions in our work lives – and most of the time we don’t even know we’re making them. An assumption is a belief that is unexamined and unsupported by facts. There are many benign assumptions – but there are also some pretty destructive ones.
In many years of work as an employee, manager and consultant/investigator, I’ve identified my top three most dangerous common workplace assumptions:
• Assumption: Management knows what the problem is. They just refuse to fix it. Often, what is obvious to staff is not at all obvious to management. For instance, it may be common knowledge among her co-workers that Henrietta ducks out early every Friday. Because it’s common knowledge among employees, they assume it’s known to management. Likely, that’s not the case unless someone goes to management and tells them. Don’t assume management knows what’s going on even if you think it’s obvious. If you see a problem that’s not being addressed by management, it may be because they don’t know. Bring it to their attention and ask that they address it!
• Assumption: Employees understand the reasons for management action. How often have you been in a situation where management did something, made some change, without explanation? Perhaps you’ve even been that manager. If you’re in management when that happens, you’re assuming that because you know the back-story, everyone does. You’ve been working on the change for months – so it’s obvious to you. You forget that it’s all new to your employees . Don’t assume – explain not only what’s being done, but why.
• Assumption: They’re out to get us. The “they” can be anyone you see as the “other.” If you’re in management, it’s easy to assume the employees are out to get you. If you’re an employee, it’s just as easy to assume management wants to do you in. Unions and management sometimes assume that of one another. How does that happen? It’s the result of poor communication and lack of trust. As human beings, we need explanations. When we don’t get them, we tend to make them up – sometimes with little or no factual basis to back them up.
For example, Harold just started here, but has already been promoted. I assume he’s sleeping with the director. Maybe he is – or maybe he has exactly the background that’s needed for an important vacancy that just happened. Or, for example, the manager of my division was just replaced, giving us the fourth new manager in three years and making it really hard for the division to function well. I assume top management wants to make our division look back so they can close it down. Maybe – or maybe things are changing so quickly that people are getting moved and promoted in an attempt to help the company grow.
And don’t forget this truism: never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence. They’re likely not out to get you, they may just not be very good at what they do!
What to do? First of all, become aware of the assumptions you’re making, and examine them closely. If you can be aware of your own assumptions, and attentive to the destructive potential of the wrong assumptions you make, you can go a very long way toward better communication, less miscommunication, and more understanding and harmony in your workplace. And, seek information and ask questions, lots of questions – respectfully, but with determination. Help your workplace be a better place with fewer destructive assumptions!
Have you ever found that assumptions you made at work were wrong? How did you find out? What happened? Let us hear from you! ~Daphne Schneider