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Are you a credible leader? Check your assumptions.

Are you a credible leader? Check your assumptions.

Making a wrong assumption can cost you, and cause harm to others.

An assumption in the workplace can be described taking a “fact” or something that you have observed as true or certain to happen, yet without proof or without ever discovering the root causes of the behaviour.

Although assumptions can be about anything, I want to focus on the assumptions leaders make at work, especially about people.

Every recurring problem you encounter about your staff, customers or members, will cause you to develop assumptions about this person. In time, this leads to a strong causal belief about why you “know” this person is the way they are or why they showing up in a certain way.

If your assumptions are incorrect, you will set in motion a recursive cycle that tends to narrow your beliefs even further, to the point that you might end up describing that person in two or three words or a short sentence:

  • Dal does not even know how to spell strategy, so leave him out
  • Clive’s actually a drug addict, not a manager
  • Caroline is such a loser
  • Steven is such a softy, he’s no good with angry clients
  • Jason never gets anything right
  • Max is a people-pleasing brown-noser
  • Maxine will give the farm away if you gave her the chance
  • Dan always lacked direction. Now he’s just converted to [name of religion]. Go figure
  • Tina is super conservative. Don’t put her in charge of the office party
  • Give Jill-a-break, I mean give Jill a job at the back where she can’t break anything

When you do not challenge or evaluate an assumption that has been spread around the department, or test an assumption you might have made about a person, it becomes true for you if it gets repeated often enough.

In a sense, you formalize it by not challenging it or interrupting the pattern. Or you end up giving it legs by speaking about it as a fact. Repeated often enough, especially by leader who has positional authority to make it “true,” it eventually becomes true, yet without substantive proof.

A few years back I had been working with a new client on the details around introducing one of my programs to their organization. I am detail oriented and was surprised when I received a request for more information, at a level of detail I have seldom, if ever, provided to a client. I started to make an assumption about my client and it went something like this, “they don’t really want to hire me but want to use my material to benchmark their own training.” I reluctantly provided more detail and then heard nothing for a long while. I then started to assume that all the detail and effort I had put into the program, including my IP I had sent my client was a bad move and a wrong decision on my part. I started to believe my own story.

A month later my client came back to me and said, “When can you start?”

What I learnt

What I learnt from that experience is that I had wasted my time and energy speculating about an hypothetical scenario that I had convinced myself was true, yet without proof. This lesson started me on a path to check my assumptions before I convinced myself they were “true” for me.

Some of the assumptions I make are indeed correct, but the majority of assumptions I make are usually wrong, inaccurate or need to be adjusted to reflect a more accurate reality.

As a result, I’ve developed a quick 3-step assumption FITness Test to check my assumptions while on the move. More about the FIT Test for testing assumptions about people later.

This article is about building credibility as a leader by learning how to check assumptions at work, especially about people. If we make assumptions and don’t test them, the acted-out beliefs as a result of those assumptions can cause untold harm to employees and tends to smother innovation and engagement at work.

Ladder of inference explained

Are you a credible leader? Check your assumptions.Most people in leadership should be familiar with The Ladder of Inference first put forward by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris. The Ladder of Inference illustrates how we make assumptions and reinforce them by adopting beliefs that narrow the data in a recursive loop that leads to actions that can tarnish your credibility as a leader.

Here is a simple example of how Tanya arrives at an assumption and decides to take action:

Tanya arrives at work at 8:30am.

1- She notices stuff: Everyone is in a meeting upstairs in the boardroom.
2- She interprets that info: I wonder why I was not invited
3- She adds her own meaning to it: Maybe they don’t want me here anymore
4- She assume things about that info: I’m sure it’s about the cost overruns on the project
5- She draws conclusions based on that info: I don’t think they value the work I put into this project
6- She adopts a belief about it: Dad always told me never to trust anyone. I should never have trusted their “support”
7- She takes actions based on her belief: I think I’ll take up that job offer from Wendy and get out of here

(Tania was emailed about the early meeting but her email was not delivered. It turned out that Tania updated her iPad software the night before and was unaware her work email was not working and needed to be reconfigured.)

Although the example above is a simple illustration of the way we draw inferences and make assumptions, leading to actions, we act out versions of this all the time.

Workplace examples

Here are a few typical workplace examples that are fodder for assumptions to thrive.

You have noticed that:

  • The senior managers prefer to show value to shareholders rather than address the well-being needs of staff
  • No female engineer has ever recieved the star performer award at our engineering firm
  • One employee always seems bad-tempered all the time
  • Your manager always has time to speak to Shirley but never has time for your concerns
  • Client X never returns your calls
  • Your manger thinks she has clearly communicated the reasons for the staff and budget cuts
  • Challenging your boss at the weekly meeting is career limiting
  • It’s best to keep your head down and stay out of trouble and just do your job in this department
  • People stick to themselves and ignore you at the office
  • You should never speak up, otherwise you’ll be marked as a problem employee

If you reflect on the typical assumptions above and on any assumptions you might have made at work, how do you quickly assess if an assumption you have made is costing you or causing unintended harm to others because it has not been evaluated?

The FIT Test for Assumptions About People At Work

Here is the 3-step FIT test, to help you quickly crack open and evaluate any assumption you might have made.

The FIT Test for Testing Assumptions at Work


  • What are the real facts or data?
  • Has this data been manipulated?
  • How much of this data is legend?


  • How have I interpreted the facts?
  • What information have I decided to ignore?
  • What information have I decided to include?


  • What will I do to clarify this assumption?
  • What will I do to interrupt a false assumption?
  • What is my plan of action now?

Are you a credible leader?

All credible leaders must take it upon themselves to check their assumptions about others and also to interrupt false assumptions about colleagues, other managers and staff.
This practice sets a precedent and sets people up for success based on their potential, rather than allowing false assumptions to infilitrate the culture and stifle real dialogue, innovation and authentic customer engagement.



Dene Rossouw Dene Rossouw

Learning Coach at team Possibil.

INFLUENCING - We help you build your influence and have the necessary conversations of leadership by introducing you to proven practices and tools that get you real results.

INNOVATION - Your people have the best ideas and we're passionate about helping you inspire innovation at work by leveraging the ideas of your employees to increase your effectiveness and strategic advantage.

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