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Always Test Your Assumptions words on a speedometer or gauge to measure or estimate whether your theory is correct or incorrect, right or wrong

You’re probably familiar with the old joke about a bad day at the golf course.

Fred got home from his Sunday round of golf later than normal and very tired. “Bad day at the course?” his wife asked.
“Everything was going fine,” he said. “Then Harry had a heart attack and died on the 10th tee.”
“Oh, that’s awful!”
“You’re not kidding. For the whole back nine it was hit the ball, drag Harry, hit the ball, drag Harry.”

The first time I heard that joke, it was funny because as any good joke, it caught me by surprise. You and I probably made the same assumption the first time we heard the joke. However, how many times in the course of our busy work days do we make a false assumption and then get caught by surprise when we learn the truth? That’s not always so funny.

Take, for example, what happened to my brother Rich and his wife Sandy.  Sandy, a sales rep and kitchen designer, had several appointments one particularly hectic Thursday afternoon, with a scheduled golf tee time at 5:00 p.m.  While getting ready for her three o’clock sales appointment, she asked my brother, who’s retired, to please put her golf clubs and shoes in the back of her car as she would have to leave for the golf course directly following her meeting. Rich happily did so.

Arriving at the meeting location, Sandy when to her trunk to get some product samples she’d need for her presentation. Upon opening the trunk, she immediately spied her golf clubs, but only one golf shoe. She looked under the car, thinking the shoe had fallen out when opening the trunk, but nope, it wasn’t there. Sandy thought to herself, “Rich must have accidentally dropped it on the floor of the garage when loading my gear into the trunk.”

When her appointment ended, Sandy called home to have Rich look in the garage for the missing shoe. But no shoe could be found. Again she looked under her car and scanned the parking lot, but no shoe. She emptied everything out of her vehicle, determined to find that shoe. She ended up golfing in her sandals that evening.

Following her golf game, Sandy drove the route she had taken earlier, thinking that perhaps Rich had placed the golf shoe on the roof of her car when he loaded her clubs, had forgotten it, and it had fallen off during her travels. She retraced the route – still no shoe. She went home convinced that Rich had not put both shoes in the trunk when he’d packed it for her.

Arriving home, Sandy discovered that Rich had also retraced her route – twice. But no shoe. He was convinced that she’d lost her shoe or that it had somehow gotten mixed in with her sales samples. Both Sandy and Rich suspected the other was responsible for the missing shoe.

The following day, my brother, undaunted and determined to find that shoe, went out again to look for it. He opened the trunk of Sandy’s car and began pushing things around, confident he would find the missing shoe. Minutes later, Sandy followed him into the garage to assure him that it was not in her vehicle.

As Sandy approached, with Rich hunched over rummaging around in the trunk, she started to laugh. Rich, frustrated by his inability to find the shoe and thinking it anything but funny, barked, “What’s so funny?”

Sandy pointed, “Look up!”  When he did, Rich saw, hanging over his head, the lost shoe dangling by its Velcro strap to the carpeted hood. Both started to laugh – and laugh every time they think about the incident.

In the workplace, the fallout from wrong assumptions isn’t a laughing matter. Image is marred. Credibility is questioned. Reputations are ruined. Conflict ignites. Sales are lost. Relationships are damaged. Every day in business, a host of negative consequences occur when someone can’t make sense of what seems to be. Lacking all the facts, they make an assumption and create a story that ends up far from the truth.

For instance, have you ever assumed that:

  • a client is avoiding you because they haven’t responded to a voicemail or email?
  • your business partner is happy with the way you work together because he or she not said anything?
  • a customer intentionally lied to you when they promised a testimonial that you didn’t receive?
  • your employees are happy with your leadership style because no one has ever approached you with a complaint?
  • no news is good news?

These are just a few of the assumptions people make daily, and all lack a major piece of the story – something that could only be gleaned by working collaboratively and asking questions to get a broader view of reality.

As difficult as it may seem, it’s important that a leader always give the other guy the benefit of the doubt. Avoid jumping to conclusions and making assumptions, especially if your assumption involves assigning blame.  Assigning blame is unproductive and can cause more harm than good. If you see an issue from only one perspective, you are incredibly limited in what’s possible. Even multiple individuals addressing an issue separately have a narrow view of the problem. But when people act collaboratively and share information and perspectives and brainstorm together, they can get a different view altogether. New information and new perspectives and a host of new possibilities open the mind to unique (and sometimes interesting) solutions to what may or may not be a problem.

Be your own best coach. Answer the following questions:

  • Think of an issue that needs a resolution. What assumptions have you made about the problem? What facts are missing?
  • How many perspectives have you elicited?
  • With whom have you taken time to brainstorm?
  • Have you involved the stakeholders in finding a resolution? If not, why not?
  • Are you truly grateful for the input of others?

Attacking a problem together and assuming the best of those involved is key to a greater field of view and richer possibilities. And, who knows, you just might be pleasantly surprised at what you find and enjoy some laughs in the process.

(c) 2015  Mary Jane Mapes  All rights reserved.

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