An old Sufi parable, The Blind Men and the Elephant, illustrates how inadequate information causes us to draw faulty conclusions. In the tale, six blind men approach and touch a different part of an elephant to learn what it is like. Because each gains only a portion of reality through sensory perception, they all make erroneous assumptions and misinterpret the elephant as a wall, spear, snake, tree, fan and rope.
An assumption is an underlying premise that stems from a belief or idea that is held as truth, with little or no supporting evidence. Each day, we make assumptions that are influenced by biological, cultural, historical and intellectual biases. Assumptions play a vital role in our lives, but when unchallenged, they cause us to jump to conclusions by blocking our ability to think clearly about or resolve issues.
Organizations are built upon certain assumptions regarding human behavior and organizational practices. Here are a few examples:
- Employees are lazy and will not perform unless they are closely scrutinized.
- Employees place their individual interests ahead of what’s best for the organization.
- Employees are not capable of making good decisions about important matters that positively impact the bottom line.
- Employees do not want to be held accountable for their decisions and actions that affect organizational performance.
- Best practices in other organizations will also work in our organization.
- Because our new CEO was successful in his/her previous organization, he/she will be successful in this organization.
- This is the way we’ve always done it, and we’re still in business.
- Technology makes us more efficient.
- People want what our organization has to offer.
- A single initiative will solve all of our problems.
Our collective organizational beliefs affect how we interpret data. Therefore, faulty assumptions about human intentions and behavior can create a psychologically dysfunctional organization and produce devastating results.
Peeling Back the Layers
Assumptions, especially long-held ones, can be difficult to recognize. To enhance self-awareness and effectiveness, we must delve beneath the surface to discover the how and why of our assumptions and the conclusions that we draw from them. Here’s an example:
Belief: All engineers are brilliant.
Assumption: I’m an engineer; therefore, I am brilliant.
Conclusion: Because I am brilliant, our project team should adopt my recommendations.
The above example is based on a logical belief deemed as “truth.” However, logic alone does not guarantee truth, because a logical conclusion based on sound reasoning may dispute a problem or event that we are attempting to understand. Logic and reasoning cannot determine much about the world until the premise is supported by solid evidence.
Use the following exercise to uncover the assumptions that bolster your decisions:
1. List your strongest beliefs (premises or statements that you regard as truth from which a conclusion can be drawn).
2. Write down your assumptions that stem from these beliefs.
3. List the conclusions that you draw from your assumptions.
This is the starting point for self-discovery, inspiration, innovation and growth. Uncovering your sacred truths paves the way to more creative ideas and solutions and more informed decision-making.
Each time we approach a problem or situation, we bring our accumulated knowledge, experiences, biases — conscious and unconscious — and assumptions. This mental baggage causes us to frame events in ways that may not be rational or constructive. By challenging assumptions (our own and others), we question those beliefs and ideas that are taken for granted by testing and evaluating their validity and relevance. In doing so, we extrapolate known facts to predict an outcome and raise the bar for more stimulating dialogue, creative problem solving and informed decision-making — all of which promote a positive relationship between organizational effectiveness and well-being.
Reflective inquiry is one way to challenge assumptions and broaden your perspective on problems and their resolution. For example, when confronting issues you might ask:
- What are my general assumptions?
- What key assumptions am I making about this particular issue?
- What solid evidence do I have to support these assumptions?
- What other data might I be missing?
Engaging in reflective inquiry enables you to explore all the angles and integrate multiple perspectives to support your beliefs and ideas. Consequently, you’re better able to understand why you do what you do, as well as their implications.
Critical thinking and reflection are ongoing processes whereby you think and reflect on your experiences (beliefs, values, work and relationships). Modeling these practices in your own organization can help others to better tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, imagine alternatives and develop new insights to navigate the shades of gray that characterize today’s workplace environment.
Assuming that conditions remain constant is like driving forward while relying solely on the rearview mirror. Free yourself from the web of assumptions to evolve your experiences, make new and meaningful connections and expand your views.
Until Next Time,