I make dozens of assumptions every day with varying degrees of complexity. Some situational, some social, some physical, and some emotional, to name a few. The red light over the stove is lit up and the frying pan is in the sink. I’m going to assume the stove is hot since the last time the light was red and I touched the stove I got burned. Lesson learned, I'm staying away!
Or what about this one: the mail carrier has come everyday for the last year between 3:00 and 4:00pm. So even though I’m super excited about that new thing I ordered from Amazon or new meal coming from Blue Apron I’m not going to check the mail just yet because I assume he hasn't come early.
Assumptions are derived from our cognitive core as social mammals. Assumptions have evolved as a survival tool to quickly categorize new situations based on past similar experiences so we don’t get burned at the stove or eaten by a tiger. Back when we were tasked with outsmarting wild animals daily, making the right decision in a precarious new situation often made the difference between life and death.
Fast forward to the cube you share with two of your closest coworkers. After last month’s ‘re-densification,’ the fears of the hierarchy of the animal kingdom seem light years away. It's not that all assumptions are bad. Rather, in instances where our physical survival isn’t on the line, it becomes worthwhile to check our relational and emotional assumptions with other possible outcomes before coming to a conclusion about another person.
Paul leaned over to talk to Sam. Guess what! Mary in operations gave me that look again today, I bet she’s unhappy with how I marked up that report. Why doesn’t she understand that’s how the regulators need to see the data? Enough! The next time I talk to her I’m not backing down about these reports. I’m not taking any more attitude.
A few points about the above example (which I bet hasn’t happened to anyone before!). First, is Paul correct? Sure, Mary may be upset about the way he formatted those reports. Is it also possible that Mary isn’t angry at Paul at all, but instead is making that face because she got a flat tire on the way to work and was late dropping her kids off at school? Yes, that’s also a possibility. What about if Mary is a little bit angry with Paul, but was up late last night working on another report due today and although she knows Paul’s way is correct, ran out of time and didn’t want to adhere to his formatting? Sure, that also seems like a possibility. Finally, what if Paul recently got new contacts that are just a little blurry and that snarky face he thinks he sees is actually an appreciative smile? Yeah, I like that one too.
So, why is any of this important? Well, if Paul assumes Mary is exclusively upset with him, then Paul may become defensive and have his next series of interactions with Mary for the remainder of the day, or even week, become clouded by a quest for relational vengeance bringing productivity to a halt and collaboration to an all-time low.
But what about that last example with Paul’s new contact lenses? This points to the prime motivator of the assumption: me. Assumptions often work to focus their energy solely on the individual making them, and not on a wider reality based in discernible fact. If Paul doesn’t assume, and assume pessimistically, until otherwise proven that Mary is upset with him, Paul will not unnecessarily need to take a defensive, aggressive position against a false enemy. Paul will also have the opportunity to think outside himself and his insecurities in the workplace.
1. Write down three instances where you have made an assumption and been right.
2. Write down three instances where you have made an assumption and been wrong.
3. Next, write down what you assume others think of you at work. Is it positive or negative?
4. Write down an instance where you learned someone made an incorrect assumption about you. How did you address that? How did that make you feel?