Leading effectively is hard. Leaders often face moments where their courage and conviction come into question and they must rise to the occasion and help move their organization forward. Even for the leader in a vibrant and healthy organization with strong products, processes, and people, there will be many moments when the leader is challenged to help rally team members toward a shared goal.
While the products, processes and people may be aligned to help the organization excel, those qualities alone will not make the difference. The leader has to be aware of the assumptions she or he holds that shape the way they interact with others as individuals and the organization as a whole. Being aware of these assumptions, taking ownership of them, and putting safeguards in place to protect against them can make a big difference in the impact a leader can make.
While the assumptions a leader makes are often very specific to her or him, there are some general patterns that emerge. Some of these common assumptions include:
1. Assuming those you admire have their act together. It’s easy to look at the leaders around us and assure ourselves they have all the answers. The reality may be very different. While many leaders do operate from a stance of knowing all the answers, many others spend serious time contemplating their decisions and the associated next steps. For all we know, they may be faking it.
This “fake it until you make it” approach is grounded in science. The placebo effect has been tested and retested often and the results continue to reaffirm its power. In Texas, a team of researchers engaged in “sham surgery,” pretending to repair patients’ bad knees while in fact simply leaving them with the outwardly visible signs of the surgery. A year later, these patients reported knee health consistent with others who had actually had the knee replaced. A team of Japanese researchers told a group of blindfolded students their right arm was being rubbed with poison ivy. While the students were really rubbed with only a harmless shrub, all 13 still ended up with poison ivy symptoms like redness and itching (several even developed boils!) at the spot on their arm where the shrub came in contact.
These studies carry leadership implications. Regardless of whether you knew the right answer from the beginning or if you are still debating options as you announce your decision, share the message with confidence and grace. Even if it feels like you are faking it, it’s only a matter of time before that placebo effect kicks in and you will start owning the moment.
2. Assuming the intentions of others. In one of my early classrooms, I had a student who sat in the back row each session, never spoke up in class, would not participate in assigned small group discussions, and routinely arrived a few minutes late and left a few minutes early. The student drove me crazy because I felt like he was being rude and that I was failing to break through and make a connection with him.
On his final exam, the student ended up sharing a comment that my course had been his favorite in college and how much he enjoyed it. His note was totally unexpected so I sent him an email thanking him for the kind words and telling him they had surprised me. He responded by sharing that he had a huge fear of germs and this caused him to avoid small group conversations and leave before the exit space got crowded with other people. His note totally flipped my perspective.
Every day, we make hundreds of assumptions about the intentions of the other individuals in our community. We decide why our colleague is rude to us, why a team member’s report is always late, and why our co-worker does not turn her or his Zoom camera on. There’s a good chance our assumption about their intention is wrong. The easiest way to know for sure is to ask.
3. Assuming your words are working. Words are powerful. The words we choose speak to our state of mind, our ability to communicate with impact, and our security in our leadership role. In researching how to improve word choice as a leader, many results indicate strategies like “don’t use contractions,” “avoid words like ‘probably’ and ‘can’t,” and “write at a level every reader can easily comprehend.” These are all good pieces of advice, but the intention for this assumption is slightly different. If you did an audit of the words you use most often, would they be considered more collegial or authoritative? More inclusive or divisive? Are your words designed to be inspirational and elicit partnership or to set a tone and establish authority? Understanding the patterns that your word choice promotes is an important step in understanding the culture you’re building as a leader.
4. Assuming you’re on the right path. The fourth assumption would be the assumption that the team is on the right path. Often, even in the face of conflicting data, leaders continue down a path that they know no longer makes sense. Whether the decision comes from a place of ego (“I set us on this path and it must be right”), investment (a significant amount of time and money have already been dedicated down that path), or fear (“I don’t know as much about this new direction and that makes me nervous”), the outcome is the same. The necessary pivot does eventually come, but the risk is much higher that it’s too little too late. Using a benchmarking approach to keep track of progress and stay connected with those who are experiencing change on the front lines will help the leader continue to shine.
Assumptions are barriers to growth. Each of the four assumptions explained here can prevent the leader from achieving their highest level of impact. Acknowledging these assumptions (and the other persona assumptions the leader has adopted) is the first step in overcoming them.
Dave Urso is dean of Academic Affairs at Blue Ridge Community College and chief innovation officer at Dynamic Consulting.