Written by: Marisa Murray, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Have you ever watched a sitcom where the episode’s plot has centered on a mistaken identity or misunderstanding between two characters?
Of course you have—false assumptions have been a staple of comedic storytelling since at least the days of Shakespeare. But in real life, false assumptions result in more tragic circumstances. When it comes to leading a business, they contribute to destroyed relationships, corporate morale issues, and negative impacts to the bottom line.
We all inherently know the damage of making a false assumption and yet they might just be the most common leadership blind spot I encounter as an executive coach. When I discuss how the blind spot of false assumptions shows up with my clients, I like to describe it as "Actions people take or ways they behave when they act on missing or inaccurate information.”
Blind spots occur when there is a gap between our intentions and impact. Not only is this a perfect breeding ground for false assumptions in a work environment, but false assumptions also have a way of further widening the gap between intention and impact.
Often, false assumptions layer on top of each other. Take for example, the housing market crash of 2008 which spiraled into a global economic recession. The big false assumption was that housing prices would keep climbing, which underpinned the creation and sale of mortgage-backed securities. And beneath this were more false assumptions being made at lower levels by individuals. For instance, an individual mortgage officer might have suspected the loan they were approving was too risky, but they justified it under a false assumption of, “If the system says the lender is approved, then who am I to say otherwise?”
All blind spots are sneaky, but especially false assumptions. They survive by masquerading as truth. Assumptions begin to feel like the “truth,” so we don’t question them like we might other behaviors. When dealing with our own false assumptions, it’s easy to justify them because they are usually formed with good intentions.
Like many blind spots, false assumptions often become clear in hindsight—after the damage is done. The challenge for leaders is learning to catch and correct a false assumption before it causes harm.
The truth hiding within the false
The trickiest part is there may be an element of truth within the assumption. This only makes them more difficult to see!
For example, let me introduce you to Daniel. He’s the best salesperson in the company. He closes three times the amount of deals as anyone else—clients frequently ask for him and bring him referrals. On top of this, he has a highly strategic mind and the CEO is frequently asking for his perspective on various company issues.
Over time, this can morph into Daniel’s assumptions: “I’m special. There’s no one else like me. No one else can do what I can.” Before long, this translates into a pompous attitude and pretty soon HR is getting complaint after complaint about Daniel making other members of the sales team feel maligned and demeaned. Not long after that, customers notice a drop in the quality of Daniel’s work because he’s got more work than he can handle. He starts dropping balls because his assumption of “I’m special” means he won’t ask for help either.
The truth in the statements is that Daniel is special. It’s true there’s no one like him. And it may even be true that no one else can do what he can. The problem is how he is executing upon these statements—elevating himself instead of using his specialness to elevate the team.
Now what if Daniel made the shift to share his knowledge and techniques? What if he instead became an ally to others on the sales team? What if he took them on sales calls so they could learn his best practices? Or share some of the accounts with other members so his work can be more manageable? How would these changes make a positive difference among the team?
In other words, sometimes what makes a statement a false assumption isn’t that the statements themselves are false—but the fact that they lead to a false conclusion and the wrong leadership behaviors.
Scanning your operating system
So how do you figure out if someone is running on a false assumption? How do you get into someone else’s head and help them discover their own assumptions? What if by figuring out their false assumptions—or even your own—you could discover and address other blind spots surrounding you?
It sounds like professional telepathy—and it is a bit.
The first key to catching false assumptions is to understand how they embed themselves into people’s “operating system.” Like a computer virus, they can go unnoticed unless you have systems to detect their presence.
This requires you to examine your mind’s operating system, which drives your perspective, decision-making, and behaviors. An “upgrade” of this operating system—and every application running on it—is required to make it work better. As a leader, this is even more important because your thinking guides more than your individual behaviors—it guides your entire team.
So what does this mean for you? It means you’ve got to start with yourself. You’ve got to question your own assumptions. No matter how ridiculous it seems, every belief has to go under the mental microscope for examination. The challenge is you’re not going to be able to do this alone. To scan your operating system, you’re going to have to get feedback from others.
If you can confirm with others that your assumption is correct, then congrats! You’ve got a true assumption you can use to build off of. If the feedback from others reveals information you were missing, however, then also congrats! You’ve just found a false assumption to address, which makes you better than you were yesterday.
Sometimes it's easiest to start this process by looking at past missteps. What was the underlying false assumption that led to the problem? Now examine where this same false assumption may be rearing its head in your current context. False assumptions rarely die after they cause damage. They just hibernate and then re-emerge when your guard is down.
If you can keep a tab on your own recurring false assumptions, you can become more adept at noticing them in others. As you upgrade your mental operating system with a false assumption firewall, you can help others do the same.
Identifying your false assumptions
If you’ve been in business for any amount of time, it’s likely you’ve already run into false assumptions in your team or collaborations. Maybe it was a project neglected because two members of the team assumed it was being covered by the other. Maybe it was a messy customer situation because of a miscommunication. If you want to find your team’s false assumptions, look for wherever there is conflict.
Conflict can serve as a compass to direct you toward some false assumptions. Are there assumptions in your own “operating system” you may need to take a fresh look at? Allow your own conflicts to point you to where your potential false assumptions are hiding.
Your brain has formed false assumptions based on past experiences that seem similar to your current situation. The shift you need is to make the subconscious assumptions conscious. Only then can you take real action.
Consider the following set of questions:
- What past experiences do I think are most similar to my current role, project, or other challenge I am facing?
- What expectations or approaches am I assuming to be correct but have not confirmed with others?
- What assumptions might I need to validate? Who can I ask to validate or debunk them?
- What past experiences does our current project, mandate, or challenge most remind us of?
- What expectations or approaches might we be assuming to be correct even though we have not confirmed them or considered alternative approaches?
- What assumptions do we wish to validate? Who can act as our advisors or mentors to validate or debunk our assumptions or expectations?
Regardless of how they show up, when false assumptions go unchecked, they easily become a breeding ground for more blind spots. They tend to cause individuals to over-index their own emotions, which only creates a negative impact on other people, and by extension, on the team and business. They can snowball quickly—and turn into an avalanche.
If you want to dive deeper into how other leaders and companies have found and fixed their false assumptions, I share three true life case studies in my book Blind Spots: How Great Leaders Uncover Problems and Unleash Performance. No matter what stage of your leadership journey you are in, becoming a false assumption detective is one of the greatest ways you can scale your impact right away.
P.S. Want to gain invaluable insights into your blind spots right now - that’s why we built www.feedbackfriend.ai. Get the feedback you need for free today.
Marisa Murray, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Marisa Murray is a leadership expert and executive coach with three Amazon best-sellers: Work Smart, Iterate!, and Blind Spots. She is CEO of Leaderley International and a TEDx speaker, dedicated to helping individuals and teams achieve superior performance. Her epiphany that "Blind Spots are the Key to Breakthroughs" inspired the creation of FeedbackFriend.ai, an AI-powered tool democratizing feedback access. Recognized by Manage HR magazine in the Top 10 Emerging Executive Coaching Companies for 2023, Leaderley serves clientele from the upper echelons of Fortune 500 companies. Through Marisa's writing, coaching, speaking, or 360s—her mission is to cultivate leaders that accelerate positive change.