Assumptions: How Conscious Are You?

 In Leadership

Amy Hart

t’s  not our fault that we make assumptions…it’s the way the brain works, right?

Yes…sort of. Our brains are like video recorders, taking in information all the time. Because everything is not of equal importance, the brain sorts information according to perceived importance and what is familiar. Then we begin to make assumptions about that data that can drive us to conclusions.

HOLD ON! That’s where we need to take a second look. Specifically, we need to become AWARE of the assumptions are we making – and more importantly – how we may act as if these assumptions are facts!

A useful model, The Ladder of Inference, was first articulated by Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and was later popularized in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. Start at the bottom (below) and work your way up the ladder, to visualize how our brains work:






                                                – Brain Observes –

The goal is to be AWARE of our human tendency to select data (the first step of the ladder) that reinforces what we already believe, make assumptions (how often do we forget to ask and check it out with others?), draw our own conclusions, and then take action as if we are dealing with facts.

Here’s a simple personal example. We have a dog named Lady. She’s a five year old rescue that I had labeled as sweet, but a “wild child.” Great dog, loves people, but such a pain to walk. She’d lunge at runners, constantly pull when walking. I figured she was just high strung and grew increasingly frustrated, not realizing the extent of my assumptions – “She knows what I want and is just stubborn…this is hopeless.”


So we finally take a “Dog Training” class – in reality a People Training class- in how to communicate with dogs. I learned a series of simple things, enabling me to understand and speak her “language” so she started understanding what I was asking for.

After some practice, she’s like a new dog. Hmmmm.

I realized that the mental picture I had of her – and the adjectives I used to describe her – were based on erroneous assumptions, leading to wrong conclusions and ineffective actions.

Lady has not changed. My mind and actions have changed and thus the results I’m getting in interacting with her have changed.

What might this mean for us in our work? What if you have erroneous beliefs or assumptions about your “irritating” co-worker or that “lazy” direct report? Could your assumptions and conclusions be leading to actions that encourage behavior you don’t want? Are you are even speaking a language they understand? Take a look.

Challenging your assumptions and your thinking can lead to different (i.e. better!) results. It’s not our fault that we all make unconscious assumptions. However whether we choose to become aware of and challenge those assumptions IS our choice and does affect our results!

Note: For more info on this topic, read the April Blog.  If you’re in Houston, Amy will be speaking on this topic further at the HR Houston Gulf Coast Symposium on May 9, 2018.  See the Services Tab of this website for more information.