The harder you fight to hold on to specific assumptions, the more likely there’s gold in letting go of them.
John Seely Brown, Fast Company
Once a good job is in hand, the key is to keep it. Much of doing that has to do with keeping skills sharp, improving on those skills to match up to the needs of the particular employer, and knowing how to develop those skills farther. Beyond the specific skill set is the more uncertain interpersonal realm. How relationships, coalitions, and politics work in the employment environment is of equal value to the talent someone brings to the table.
The Assumption Game occurs when people create assumptions about other people or groups in the organization based on…well, anything but fact. Assumptions are made about people or groups without really understanding the perspectives at play. Unfortunately, not taking the time to understand others’ point of view quickly turns misunderstanding into stereotyping or worse – prejudice.
A person or group who has a prejudice can only see with that prejudice. Like an interpersonal filter, every action and interaction is seen through that lens. Of course, this lens is dirty – and brings with it misunderstanding and distrust.
Examples of the assumption game:
- It is time to select individuals for a project team. Instead of selecting teammates based on skills and abilities, selections are made based on who thinks like the leader and whose behavior is predictable. Choices are made less about who represents the best talent and more about who will least rock the proverbial boat. Are these choices the best for the organization? Is safety and/or comfort a fitting substitute for competance?
- An important business engagement awaits and a business partner is late. While there may be legitimate and important reasons for the tardiness, assumptions kick in. Is the colleague late because they are a certain gender and take too long to get ready? Is the colleague late because they are of a certain ethnicity that always seems to be late? Could it be that the colleague is late because of belonging to a certain team, who “always” show a lack of discipline?
- Reorganization occurs and a work environment is predominately non-white. A white employee quickly complains to a manger that the environment is biased and threatening. How does the organization evaluate this claim without falling into the trap of forming assumptions? How can the discomfort of a new environment be driving this emotion?
The assumption game plan:
The following can help determine whether the Assumption Game is being played:
- Conclusions are drawn in a given situation as a shortcut to avoid emotions (frustrations, anger) that may come from deeper understanding.
- People or groups are “pigeon-holed” into categories that shortcut individuality and encourage stereotyping.
- Group-Think has developed and the organization is allowing itself to assume easy handles and labels instead of finding the root of the problem
- Certain individuals or teams in the organization are consistently receiving criticism without valid assessment of responsibility
Questions to ask:
To understand the degree to which the Assumption Game is being played, consider the following questions:
- What underlying emotions exist that cause assumptions to take place?
- What is really known about the individual or group vs. vague assumption? Why is motivation to better understand lacking?
- What are the individual or organizational biases and prejudices that could be driving these assumptions?
- What business justifications have the organization developed to support biases and prejudices?
- What steps can be taken to alleviate the set assumptions so that a fair and effective communication can occur?
It is tempting to dismiss the Assumption Game by only thinking of cases where prejudice and stereotyping are rampant. This would be short sighted. Every organization plays the game, and the key is to effectively determine where it is occurring. It could be nuance and non-verbal and it could be as extreme as written policy. Either way, it is damaging the effectiveness of the team.
The Assumption Game exists because people are uncomfortable with the truth. This could be driven by insecurity, competition, or lack of self-observation. Every person and situation is unique and should be interpreted by current happenings, not past generalities. Take time to assess what biases exist within the organization. Call them out into the open so that they are discussed and then minimized. The more the organization can see each opportunity for its own merits, the more effective it will be.
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