An Opportunity for Leadership: Testing Assumptions

Understanding the power of assumptions, both positive and negative, is important to leadership.  Assumptions contribute to efficacious decision-making.  The invitation to test assumptions offers each of us an opportunity to enhance our strength and value as leaders every day in our common interactions.  


JoaN macleod Heminway

By: Joan MacLeod Heminway
Rick Rose Distinguished Professor of Law
University of Tennessee College of Law

Assumptions can be critical to efficacious decision-making.  Among other things, assumptions enable us to proceed with analytical reasoning in the absence of cold, hard facts.  Complete and accurate facts are unavailable in many significant decision-making contexts, especially those addressing emergencies or distant future circumstances or events.  These and other aspects of intuitive decision-making are—and should be—valued.

However, there is a dangerous kind of assumption that has the capacity to negatively influence decision-making and destroy trust and relationships: an assumption that substitutes for facts that are readily available but not sought out.  In a 2001 article in the MITSloan Management Review, two researchers observe that “people who are unaware of the problems with intuitive judgment fail to compensate for it in their decision-making.”  Regrettably, destructive types of assumptions are altogether too common.  I am sure that you have made them.  I have made them.  They have destroyed professional and personal relationships for no good reason.

Typical circumstances and resulting harms may be familiar . . . .  Often, the process starts with a communication from one person to another—maybe one that includes feedback on a past decision or a planned future undertaking.  The recipient assumes that she understands the motivation for and purpose of the feedback.  However, she does not check that assumption by conferring with the sender.  She reacts accordingly—maybe by response to the sender; maybe by sharing her assumption with others; maybe by making a decision based on the assumption; maybe by doing all of the foregoing.  If the recipient’s assumption is mistaken, the resulting communications and any decision-making flowing from that mistaken assumption are likely to be faulty and harmful.  Sometimes, a mistaken assumption of this kind can disrupt or sever a relationship or even go viral and create a toxic environment in an entire group, team, family, or unit.

I have seen this happen in workplaces.  The pattern has become familiar to me.  One person assumes they know why a colleague has said something in writing or aloud or has acted in a particular way.  They react accordingly.  By the time the colleague becomes aware of the assumption and attempts to explain the motivation for their statement or action, the damage has been done—and it may even have spread to others in the organization.

Lawyer-client relationships also have the capacity to be damaged by baseless intuitive judgments when facts would provide a stronger foundation for decision-making.  I remember making an assumption about a pro bono immigration client’s situation a number of years ago.  At nearly the last minute, when something did not quite add up, I asked the client a key series of questions that prevented me from making a faulty assumption that might have detrimentally affected the client’s liberty and ability to remain safe from harm in the United States.  I look back on that series of questions as a watershed moment in my development as a lawyer.  It also has laid groundwork for decision-making in other contexts, including in my teaching, research, and professional, campus, and public service.

Of course, similar rifts may be caused in dating and family relationships by inaccurate assumptions.  For example, I may assume that I know why my husband left a particular project uncompleted in order to focus, instead, on another one.  That unconfirmed assumption causes me to have a negative reaction to his choice—a reaction that I would not have had if I had inquired about and learned the reasons for his actions.  Things would predictably roll downhill from there . . . .

Electronic communication has, it seems, contributed to the proliferation and destructiveness of untested, unfounded assumptions.  Tone and motivation are always difficult to convey and interpret in the written word.  Electronic mail and texting—rapid response tools in the communication toolbox—cause the written word to be used more often and (in many, if not most cases) processed less carefully.  Other forms of electronic communication (weblog posts, online articles, bulletin boards, and the like) have the added attribute that they are impersonal, even anonymous.  Mistaken assumptions are perhaps even more prevalent in those faceless electronic communications.

At the root of the pernicious nature of untested, unfounded assumptions is a failure of trust and, therefore, individual leadership.  Those who make and rely on assumptions when facts are readily available miss an opportunity to create or strengthen a trust bond with another or others.  Worse yet, they may destroy or forestall the development of trust in professional and personal situations where that trust is important.  By asking for more information before or in lieu of making assumptions, or at least before acting on assumptions you may have made, a leader comes to understand people, as well as circumstances, more fully before irretrievable actions are taken.  Experienced leaders also know that they must assimilate the imparted information purposefully and impartially.  By following this process, relationships and decision-making capacity are enhanced, as Jürgen Oschadleus proffered in a 2011 conference paper for the Project Management Institute:

To be effective, we need to continual[ly] validate our assumptions . . . and teach those around us to do the same. We need to stimulate in ourselves and others a curiosity to learn and improve, and to develop the people we engage with. And it starts with developing our own character, our relationships, and our ability to think.

Understanding the power of assumptions, both positive and negative, is important to leadership.  Assumptions contribute to efficacious decision-making.  The invitation to test assumptions offers each of us an opportunity to enhance our strength and value as leaders every day in our common interactions.  All it takes is a bit of mindful reflection—taking a pause—when we recognize that we are making an assumption and, when that assumption can be informed by inquiry, a willingness to invest in relationships by asking purposeful, constructive questions, listening attentively to the answers, and fairly processing what we learn.  This thoughtful, reflective communication process generates or confirms trust in both professional and personal relationships—trust that is essential to effective leadership.  It is harder to engage in practice than it sounds, but I have found it to be well worth the effort.

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