If you want to avoid misunderstandings, confusion, and hurt feelings, you’re better off not making assumptions. Here are a few examples of how easy assumptions are to make and how to avoid them.
Consider how CEO Marvin could create confusion, inefficiency, and possibly ill feelings at his workplace if he just acted on his assumptions without verifying them. Here are examples:
Marvin tells Marie, his executive assistant, “I want you to give me some information about that company that started competing with us last year.” An hour later, Marie—who is assuming that she is completing the assignment satisfactorily—sends Marvin the link to that company’s Web site. Without hesitating for a minute, Marvin walks to Marie’s desk and says:
“What on earth do you mean by just sending me the Web site link? I could have found that myself very easily. I wanted that company’s annual report, list of board members, most significant press releases, stock fluctuations, and expansion plans.”
Marvin erred, as we can see, by assuming that Marie would know what he meant by “some information.” He could have avoided the misunderstanding by handing her an itemized list of the detailed items he had in mind.
Marie made a wrong assumption too. She thought she knew what her boss expected.
What action should she have taken before starting her assignment? She could have asked a few questions, starting with “Will you please clarify for me what you mean by ‘some information’?”
Her questions would not imply that she was inattentive or incompetent. Instead, she would come across as a dedicated professional determined to do the job right.
Suppose Marvin had e-mailed his instruction to Marie. After two days, he had no response from her. He had attended two meetings she participated in, yet she said nothing about his message.
The faulty assumption here is that every e-mail sent arrives in the in box of the intended receiver. Yet somehow that doesn’t happen a hundred percent of the time, as we have all experienced.
Marvin should have used the e-mail option that prompts the receiver to acknowledge arrival. If that signal didn’t come back to him, he could have called her to see whether she had his message in her mail system.
What might happen if the contractor told you your new annex would be ready to move into a month from now? You could base everything on the assumption that the date is a can’t-miss certainty. So you’d arrange for office furniture to be delivered thirty days from now and for interior decorators to show up.
Then circumstances change. The contractor encounters the harshest winter your area has experienced in decades. Storms delay the arrival of materials, and keep workers from showing up every day.
The remedy: Recognize that deadlines may change, despite everyone’s best efforts. Have an alternate plan that you will implement two or three weeks later.
Assumptions about Customers
Almost every day that you drive to work, you think of how fortunate you are to have the top five customers who account for almost seventy-five percent of your profits. These five have been with you for a couple of decades. Safe to assume they will use your products and services ten or twenty years from now?
No, that’s risky thinking. One of those favorite customers could go bankrupt. Another could leave because of a dispute with one of your executives. Day by day, incident by incident you must continue to meet their needs, and even anticipate their future needs.
Check Before Acting
In every situation we have described, the organization could have enjoyed clear communication, accurate responses, and good morale by checking out assumptions tactfully and professionally before acting.
NOTE: “I think I’ve got this right” means your business faces a surprise problem. On the contrary, good days are ahead when you can say, “I’m glad you took a few minutes to explain what you told me.”