By Leah Fessler
Under stress, it's all too easy to assume the worst of other people, including our colleagues.
Assumptions drive behavior, and behavior in aggregate defines culture. Thus, if we aspire to build collaborative, diverse, and inclusive workplace communities, we need to interrogate both the assumptions we make and how we make them.
"We make assumptions in service of resolving the unknown or moving the conversation or relationship in a certain direction," explains executive coach Stephanie Rosol. Assumption making is a form of efficiency, and as leaders responsible for navigating complex challenges, we rely on assumptions to stay agile and move quickly.
But when leaned on too heavily, our assumptions can become overconfident and biased. This is particularly important as we're all working remotely, Rosol explains. The pandemic is impacting each of us differently, and the nuances of its influence may be invisible to colleagues. This obscurity demands more generous assumptions. For example, that employee who you assume is snippy or disengaged may actually be exhausted from a baby that's not sleeping, or taking care of their elders all day every day.
When you assume positive intent, the lens through which you interpret your team shifts. Flipping assumptions into curiosity is an easy way to bridge the divide. "We need to move from answering to asking," says Rosol, "from tell-assertive to ask-assertive." Without questions, it's impossible to know what your team is feeling. And while there are certain circumstances in which directive leadership is necessary, being inquisitive is generally more effective in building team coalition and motivation.
Questions are particularly important when navigating crisis, as leaders are generally (and by necessity) ahead of their teams in the process of transformational change, explains Chief Guide Caroline Kim Oh. This dissonance can result in frustration and misalignment. Regularly asking your employees where they're at personally and professionally is the only way to provide them with the support they need to move from triage into transition, and then transformation. "As the person whose job is more safe and secure, it's your responsibility to get curious and vulnerable first," says Oh. "When you don't have the power, it's very difficult to get vulnerable first."
At its core, the ability to make assumptions at work is a privilege fueled by adjacency to power. Questioning and being more generous in your assumptions takes a heavy dose of introspection, which may not be comfortable or familiar depending on your lived experience, says Chief Member and DEI expert Jennifer Williams. "As a Black woman I am always aware that when I ascend the ranks, I am there in spite of, not because of," she explains. "There is always a feeling of I'm here, but I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. By virtue of that, it's less likely for me to fall into the trap of assumption making, because I'm already very guarded as to how I got here."
Instead of making assumptions, Williams leans into servant leadership, actively working to understand where each individual on her team is coming from, and what she can do to bring them into power.
"If you assume I can't focus for a reason that's not actually true, it doesn't matter what you meant, it matters how it landed," says Williams. "I always tell my clients to be conscious of not being so harmful that they need to rely solely on intent. You can't erase harm you've done to someone by virtue of leaning on, 'that's not what I meant.'"
One of the simplest ways to transition toward servant leadership and generous assumptions is routinely asking yourself three questions: Is what I'm thinking true? Is what I'm thinking always true? And, is there a situation in which what I'm thinking might be false?
"Generally speaking, you won't always get the same answer to these questions," says Williams. "And if you don't, your assumptions need some flagging. You need to ask yourself why you're thinking this way, where bias may be flaring up, how you may be steamrolling the conversation, and how your privilege as a leader may be coloring the situation. It is always possible to see a situation more intersectionality than it initially appears."