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Assumptions & Intentions

Hello, in today’s podcast, let’s focus on assumptions. I don’t mean creating or laying out assumptions for a business plan or a personal project. What I mean here are positive assumptions – assuming someone’s positive intent and steering clear of making negative suppositions, that certain things have happened or will happen, even though they have never taken place or nobody has let us down yet.

Let’s start with the negative assumptions. Among the ones that we, leaders, most often hold, are mismatched assumptions concerning the completion of the assignments we gave our staff. We feel frustrated and uncomfortable, because we are forced to be on their backs whenever a task is interrupted, misunderstood or done wrongly. It is worth noting, however, that this frustration may be self-inflicted because even the best intentions of our staff may fail when they try to understand our poor explanation of the task.

Regarding task explanation, I devoted one my podcasts to the meaning of “WHY?” – the importance of explaining  the corporate purpose and strategic directions to the staff, the benefits of delegating aims, the advantages of assigning broader goals – as opposed to ordering single, unrelated jobs, particular micro-tasks, leading people by the hand.

The frustration caused by misplaced assumptions is not only my experience. It is shared by my Sauna mentoring session participants, who say that much of our dissatisfaction as managers of underachieving teams derives from our inability to convey the aim and the context of the task or action. We should not be surprised that the assignment has gone wrong or failed once we have failed to give a clear enough message on its significance. In addition to not giving a general picture, we might have failed to tell our staff about some details, thinking they are obvious. We might have also taken for granted that they know how to do it. In fact, knowing how many things we may have failed to communicate, our common sense-based assumption should rather be that the task couldn’t have been completed.

We should bear in mind that explaining how to do something, sometimes necessary, does not mean babysitting our staff through each stage of their work. By no means we can blindly expect they will do exactly as we say, as this is nothing that can be scalable in the long run. It is also not the way to build self-confidence in them.

Another aspect of false assumptions is expecting the progress of work without monitoring it. It is advisable to start this process by asking an employee to paraphrase our task description, to express in their own words how they understand what to do. It’s wrong to expect them to repeat the instruction word for word as they might echo it without having a clue. Paraphrasing helps people internalize the task description. The need to reword it might also help bring out misunderstandings that we can clarify on the spot. This will obviously boost our employee’s confidence in his ability to interpret what he has heard and turn it into action.

As I said, we shouldn’t assume jobs are being done without monitoring. The task progress should be reviewed at regular one-to-one meetings. Interestingly, the progress feedback has a wider range of applications. It proves a useful tool to monitor the sales process, customer relationship or subordinate-superior relationship (practically everyone has their superior – it can be a customer, a supervisory board or a chairperson). Whatever the link, verifying assumptions we once created is equally worthwhile.

Among other tools worth mentioning, used to verify the manager’s assumptions, I’d personally recommend Mailtrack. I use it to make sure that an e-mail sent from a Gmail account has reached the addressee, has been read, the pasted links have been clicked, without manual adding, modifying, or having to reply to confirmation requests. Mailtrack registers these things automatically and its reliable status feedback allows us to assume that, for instance, if an email remains unread, it most probably has not reached the recipient. Once in a while it happens that an email has been read on a device that doesn’t support Mailtrack, but this is very rare. On the other hand, seeing the record of how many times and when our message was read or clicked, we can safely assume that the email has reached its destination. Still, the successful email transfer does not mean its meaning has got through – and that takes us back to paraphrasing.

It’s a bit similar in a relationship with a potential buyer. During our sales correspondence, it is better not to assume that our message has been delivered or that, if it was delivered it was read or, if read, it was understood and, if understood, the actions we requested have been taken. To debug all these potential misgivings, the paraphrasing technique comes in handy again. In a phone conversation or a personal meeting, it helps verify the facts or check if and how our clients have understood the information. So, our assumption here should be not to make any assumptions before the case status is validated.

There is one fundamental assumption that we, by all means, should hold for our own mental health. This is the assumption of people’s good intent. People are good by nature. They are not born to wage wars. Unless conflicted by their political views or military action, even buyers and sellers share a common goal. This is all the more true in teams. Trusting people’s goodness, it is good to assume they are working towards a common goal even if something seems to go off the beaten track. Assuming people’s good intent is better than regretting one’s suspicions. This is not about being naïve trying to justify someone’s wrongdoings saying their intentions were good. There are teamwork tools to mutually verify words and actions, to make sure everything has been correctly understood. Should we get negative feedback from team members, it’s advisable to be hard on the problem and be soft on the people. Be empathic and sensitive about our employee while focusing on the essence of the problem and defining challenge points.

This is vital from the perspective of our authority and public image – the way we are perceived by our partners, clients and, I think, most importantly, our staff. There’s nothing more frustrating than being accused of bad intentions when a task is finalized. Imagine completing an assignment and getting scolded for not following the assumptions, instead of being thanked and praised. Though task results often don’t satisfy initial expectations, the performer’s intentions are often good all along the way. The final underperformance might result from the lack of resources, poor understanding of the task description, external obstacles or a conflict of priorities.

Regretfully, too many times in my manager’s career have I unfairly blamed failed assignments on people and overreacted reproaching them. Then, after learning about the circumstances, I felt stupid and too awkward to make up. Too late did it dawn on me that actually there was a reason why my employee decided in that way. Right or wrong in our view, that person at that moment felt compelled to defer or drop the task because of other factors or priorities. I felt ashamed of my reaction. I realized how much harm it did to my mentality and authority as a manager when, unaware of the person’s true motives, I let my anger out on them instead of assuming their good intentions. My task was to ask and understand what had stopped them from doing their work. No sarcastic comments like “Since you obviously wanted  to do well, tell me why you just didn’t?”. I cannot overstress the need of being wholeheartedly empathetic when trying to understand the entire context of a task failure.

In time, ever since I adopted this approach, the perception of me as a leader has gradually changed. Not only am I regarded as empathic, but my soft competencies have led to my greater respect and authority among my personnel. It doesn’t matter if my ego is tickled. What matters is my and my staff’s confidence that difficult issues can be safely brought to light. This approach to employees is the same as the parents’ trying to encourage children to call them whatever happens instead of trying to hide the fact. So, the greater the empathy in the approach to our employees’ failures, the higher the chances of avoiding the future failures. Moreover, the lower the danger that they will withdraw, stop taking risks or avoid decisions, the greater their confidence that making errors is naturally part of the process, there will be no punishment, but joint work on how to improve things next time.

These things contribute to our mental welfare as managers and parents and enhance our authority among the people we work and live with. Finally, there is one last fundamental ability that tremendously reinforces our esteem in groups – apologising. If we realize we have done something wrong as managers or parents (assumed someone’s bad intentions, for instance) we must learn to take back what we said and eat humble pie. This immensely strengthens the emotional bonds in families or teams, reassuring them that that person can be trusted, asked for advice and that this will lead to common achievement and self-actualization.

In other words, it’s not that we should avoid making assumptions. Nothing should be assumed except one thing – others’ positive intentions.

I wish you a wonderful day.

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