Big Picture

Dump your Assumptions

When I was recently in conversation with a senior exec scoping out my Keynote speech for their virtual conference, I found myself listening to lots of information and ideas about how their wider team were feeling, behaving and performing and it led me down a rabbit hole of thinking as to what was happening with that business.

Deep in the hole, while in reflective mode considering the last year and in particular through the period of the pandemic, I noticed one characteristic that has manifested itself more than I can recall while I’ve been coaching folk, observing meetings, listening to broadcasts or reading articles just like this one – we tend to draw on our assumptions an awful lot!

Because assumptions don’t need all of the data to fire off a response in us, it short-circuits what knowledge we have and bingo! You’ll either be right or wrong. Would you gamble with a life-changing event? Would you risk your company’s future and your employees families security on a gamble? That’s what assumptions are – they are unconscious bets with our brains data, but many of us rely on this far too often and can lose effectiveness in the process.

For those reading this, who are now saying, “I don’t need to dump my assumptions, in fact, assumptions are an essential part of strategic thinking”, while you may be right, it’s also another assumption.

Let’s explore what they are, and why we have them. Assumptions are all learned and come from past experiences and data that we store in our brain. They can be influenced by our upbringing, beliefs and biases, so it’s super important to have an open mindset and pay attention to them and not act without consideration.  When something left of field or unexpected happens, perhaps when we are afraid and don’t know what to do next, we call on our assumptions to help us close the gap in our understanding. It’s also our brains’ way of keeping us safe and helps us rely on tested thinking practices and behaviour that may have served us well in the past.


plural noun: assumptions

1. a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.

“they made certain assumptions about the market”

The problem here is that assumptions are often just wrong, and they lead us to take actions and create emotions based on incorrect information. In times of crisis, varied assumptions can create a force that drives people away from each other, instead of pulling them closer together. So as leaders, how do assumptions hold us and our teams back?

We can all chuckle wryly when we here the adage, “when we assume we make an “ASS-out of U and ME’, but the first thing is to recognise there is an impact on mindset, thinking behaviour and results.

Assumptions often stop us listening to other views and opinions and could stop us taking the right action as it supports our closed mindset, worse still, researchers have shown that assumptions can lead to low energy, poor mood and develops feelings or doubt and uncertainty. More often than not assumptions fuel our mindset; it’s the voice In our head saying stuff like: I can’t do that because or everybody wants one of these or if this happens then that will happen, or I will win big if this works this way” etc.

Where assumptions can be helpful is in creating scenarios or to unlock creative ideas and thinking – this for sure can be a force for good, but those assumptions will still need evaluating.

Here’s how to deal with assumptions and make them a force of good in your life and work:

1) Notice when you “assume”. You may have generalisations in your vocabulary such as everyone, always and every time. Generalisations are almost always false. Check it out next time someone says, “Every time”, ask how many times?

2) Write them down. When you transcribe your assumptions, often the solution lay in the answer and if not it will help you queue up some awesome questions.

3) Investigate and interrogate what you have written down. Here’s the chance to search for the truth… the facts… is it true or false? Where is the evidence to back that up?

4) Spin it around. If you reverse wire your thinking, you have a chance to change perspective and this also helps validate if it’s a real assumption or fake, and here’s the thing – If It’s fake – you can dump it! No more worries, thoughts or energy wasted on something and this then allows you to focus on what is true.

LEADERSHIP HACK – When you do investigate and ask questions, do not ask questions that start with WHY? The reason is, this is emotive and while it seeks reason it actually finds more assumptions because “why” ends up in the older emotive part of our brain. This is also where our unconscious thinking lurks. Replace it instead with, “What’s the reason?” This ends up in the Pre-frontal Cortex often referred to as the executive brain and will seek logic, fact and in information to help you validate your assumptions.

So as leaders, I ask you to pay close attention to assumptions from your inner voice and your team; be free from presumption, guesses, hunch, theory and supposition on key decisions and be comfortable in embracing uncertainty with more assurance.

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Steve Rush
Steve Rush is the Chairman and Board advisor of Improov Consulting. He is the author of the global best selling book, Leadership Cake, which is available in over 40 countries around the world and host of the Leading Podcast on Leadership, The Leadership Hacker.

After a successful Executive Leadership career with several global businesses he became a coach and business consultant to other executives to pass on his learning, studies and leadership lessons. He’s also a keynote speaker, C-suite facilitator and led training events and lectures on the subject of leadership, transformation and communication in Europe and the USA, Middle East and Asia.

Steve Rush is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.