How to Challenge Assumptions in Your Leadership

October 18, 2018

A very old, traditional brewery decided to install a new canning line.  This would enable its beer products to be marketed through the supermarket sector. Local dignitaries and past employees were invited to witness the first running of the new canning line, which was followed by a buffet and drinks.

With the formalities completed, the guests enjoyed the buffet, immersed in various discussions.  In a quiet corner, the present distribution manager talked about the current transport and distribution challenges he faced with two past holders of the position.  The three men represented three generations of company distribution management, spanning over sixty years.

The present distribution manager confessed that his job was becoming more stressful because company policy required long deliveries to be made on Monday and Tuesday, short deliveries on Fridays, and all other deliveries mid-week.

“It’s so difficult to schedule things efficiently – heaven knows what we’ll do with these new cans and the tight demands of the supermarkets…”

The other two men nodded in agreement.

“It was the same in my day,” sympathized the present manager’s predecessor, “It always seemed strange to me that trucks returning early on Mondays and Tuesdays couldn’t be used for little local runs, because the local deliveries had to be left until Friday…”

The third man nodded, and was thinking hard, struggling to recall the policy’s roots many years ago when he’d have been a junior in the dispatch department. After a pause, the third man smiled and then ventured a suggestion.

“I think I remember now,” he said, “It was the horses… During the Second World War fuel rationing was introduced. So we mothballed the trucks and went back to using the horses. On Mondays the horses were well-rested after the weekend – hence the long deliveries. By Friday the horses so tired they could only handle the short local drops…”

Soon after the opening of the new canning line the company changed its delivery policy.

Leaders functioning purely based on previous experience and assumptions run the risk of becoming blind to new solutions.

Leadership Based on Assumption Breeds Weakness

It becomes very easy to let your leadership be influenced by previous experience or observations.  This leads to making assumptions, based on the previous experience.   If your Leadership becomes based on this assumptions without a conscious intent to approach people and situations with a fresh approach, you create a leadership paradigm fostering inefficiency and weakness.

As we saw in the brewery story, assumption leads to flawed decision-making and incorrect behaviour.  In leadership it breeds insecurity because you only operate within the boundaries of what is familiar to you.  It robs you of the opportunities to learn, take risks and allow other people to contribute to your life and experience by sharing their experience and insights.

You effectively start to lead on autopilot.  When you don’t take each situation, problem or challenge at its own face value, you rob yourself of unique and insightful learning opportunities.

Leadership Based on Assumption Breeds Stagnation

The biggest mistake inexperienced leaders often make lies in assuming because a situation or a person’s behaviour seems familiar to a previous experience, the resolution or the action needed will be the same. The danger of leading by assumption lies in the comfort you find in your experience and knowledge.  This makes it very difficult to break the pattern, even if it becomes clear your approach is not yielding the expected results.

Challenging Assumptions in Your Leadership

It is often not easy to acknowledge you base your leadership on assumption.  The best way to deal with this is to recognise your assumptions and to test these assumptions for validity in a situation.

Michael Roberto proposes seven questions in his book Know What You Don’t Know for helping leaders evaluate the validity of key assumptions being made by them:

  • What are the facts in this situation?
  • What issues remain ambiguous or uncertain?
  • What explicit and implicit assumptions have we made?
  • Have we confused facts with assumptions?
  • How would an outsider with an unbiased perspective evaluate each of our assumptions?
  • How would our conclusions change if each of our key assumptions proves incorrect?
  • Can we collect data, conduct a simple experiment, or perform certain analysis to validate or disprove crucial assumptions?

By continuously asking yourself these questions you reduce the risk of leading from pure assumptions, causing you to make decision and behaviour mistakes.

How would you approach a previous situation differently, if you changed your assumptions about what you perceived to be the truth?

About the author

Joseph Hawking has a passion for people & leadership development and since he discovered his mom’s old typewriter as a boy, have been writing in some form or another. He is part of the Leadership for The International Mentoring Network, where he is a regular Idea Studio Facilitator and Annual IMN Conference Speaker. He believes that the highest form of living is using what you have been blessed with, to add value to other people’s lives. He has been publishing The Leadership Connexion blog since August 2018.