Making decisions often can be a challenging task, especially when it comes to having confidence in your choices and acceptance of their consequences. Staying in our comfort zones and long-held beliefs can lead to poor decisions as a result of stronger dependence on unchecked assumptions. Unchecked assumptions lead to many inefficiencies, stalled growth, and could incur major losses at an individual or organisational level of decision making. And how effective one can be in making decisions has nothing to do with courage, talent or prior success, but it has got more to do with their ability to challenge assumptions.
Even those who consider themselves to be most experienced can also make poor decisions when they are outside of their comfort zones. Many times, we end up making simply adequate, and not optimal decisions. This is because we use relative thinking when we should use absolutes and vice versa. Also, being human makes us give into many biases, assumptions, and perceptions.
Since we want to be a part of a group, appreciated and liked, when we think of the right choice, too often we let our decisions be guided by our own assumption of what other people might think or what someone else might believe is right. The truth is, when we rely more on others’ approval, we end up giving into not only their assumptions, but also our own of what we think they are. And this increases the likelihood of not so optimal decisions.
Assumptions are powerful predictors of success or subtle forces contributing to failure. — Linda SearbyTweet
What is an assumption in terms of decision-making?
An assumption is something we accept to be true, even if we are lacking all the evidence. They are mostly considered as ideas based on inadequate information. Assumptions are often the reflection of what’s going on in one’s mind, and more or less thoughts we take for granted, or believe them to be true. And most of the times, they are usually lurking silently in one’s mind rather than spoken, voiced or discussed. However, invariably they become the attitudes that we take towards people or things. They inform our decisions and influence our choices.
For instance, a decision to not apply for a new job role comes from the assumption that you think you are not the right fit or too old for a particular job. This you arrive at from the perception that they might like to consider someone fresh, or you believe that you aren’t skilled enough, so on and so forth. Then you begin to consider it as a fact, and you refrain from applying for any such kind. What if instead, you recognised you had unique experiences from your previous job roles that could be of true value. If you were willing to challenge your assumption, you might have made a different choice, and pursued your goal.
We all make assumptions, but accepting them as facts or something definite is what leads to faulty decisions. However, In decision-making, assumption is something we treat consciously as a truth, rather than something we take for granted or believe subconsciously. Any decision-making process begins with collecting data, then sort through that data to assign meaning, and form assumptions, draw conclusions, and finally, to take action. Assumption thus becomes an important step in the middle of the decision-making ladder.
As we cannot have absolutely all the information we want or need in all situations when making a choice, we go with a supposition of the current situation or a presupposition on the future course of events, where both are assumed to be true in the absence of positive proof. This enables us to come up with an estimate of a situation and make a decision on the due course of action.
Where do they actually come from?
Our assumptions often get based on our past experiences. We respond more to our experience rather than reality. Since our experiences inform the beliefs and conclusions we arrive at in life, so are our assumptions. And few of them are also based on what we’ve learned from other people, what others have told us, and who and where we’ve come from. Most often we assume that other people also think like we do and would do what we naturally think is logical. But this is hardly ever true. What might look logical to you, may look completely illogical to others.
We also make certain assumptions based on stereotypes, and believe their decisions are correct ignoring ethical consequences of their decisions. Most of us just simply adopt the world views , the beliefs of other people, past belief systems passed onto us, and from others. So, we really do not check as to whether how much space there is for truth outside of what we think is true or what we think is right or what we think is wrong. Some assumptions are based on inaccurate or limited information, and some are based on cognitive biases.
Our assumptions sometimes gets based on wrong information or data selected through bias. Others can be our reasoning gone awry, or due to cognitive limitations or laziness. Such things might cause people to focus on the wrong things as a result of failure to check out for relevant information. We are all prone to such biases, particularly when we are fatigued, stressed or multitasking. When we are mentally, emotionally and physically spent, we cope relying even more heavily on intuitive judgments and lesser reasoning.
How wrong assumptions lead to bad decisions
“The most tenacious block to new idea is limiting assumption”—Nancy Kline
Have you ever wondered about the consequences of your assumptions? Most of our unchecked assumptions lead to poor planning and outcomes. Holding on to negative assumptions stifles your thoughts and lead us to not so different decisions, and thus to no different outcomes.
Negative assumptions are often tied up with our feelings of self -worth. They not only block new ideas but also cause insecurities that clog our neural pathways. They result in negative thinking, like, ‘it can’t be done’, or ‘there aren’t enough resources’, or ‘it never worked out in the past’ so on and so forth. These are the result of certain presuppositions that are embedded, often unconsciously in our minds. Such things lead to limiting beliefs where we begin to consider them as facts when they are just subjective ideas.
Presuppositions are convenient assumptions we make about things or people which we demonstrate through our attitudes and behaviours because they are plausible and beneficial to us to assume as they keep us in our comfort zones. As a result we give into our perception more than the reality itself. For instance, when you assume half of your employees will not be successful at coming up with a new product design as per client’s specifications, you might decide not to make an effort to opt for a new venture, which is unlike if you truly believed in their true potential.
The gauge we use to measure ourselves is usually very different from the one we use for others. So, we are quick to judge and assume what other’s intentions are. Such assumptions lead to conflicts and disagreements. When one fails to separate what is a fact and what is an assumption, or apply to the wrong context, it leads to confusion. Buying into wrong assumptions keeps you closed to possibilities which is essential in decision making.
Why is it important to challenge your assumptions
Even though they are important for any decision making, unchecked or untested assumptions lead us astray. Many of our assumptions either conscious or not go unchecked. This is either for the fear of change, facing a new experience, or confronting the unlikely. And also for the reason that our assumptions in many ways serve the purpose of coaxing us back into our comfort zone. In other words, they hold you back from doing things differently, and act as barriers unless you become effective at challenging your prevailing assumptions.
One universal assumption is that the world thinks like me. Believing in this only results in wrong assumptions. As a leader, if you are not aware of your teams’ assumptions, you will not be successful in making most optimal decisions. Unless everyone voices what they believe is true, you’ll never know whether are not you are arriving at effective decisions. And this is possible only through honest communication or feedback. Being aware, you can help those around you to realise the risks of their assumptions and can manage them better. For which, it is essential that one is willing to question their own assumptions, and those of others.
How to challenge assumptions
In our day-to-day conversations, we don’t normally challenge our thoughts and beliefs. It takes everyone at an individual, leadership or organisational level to challenge their thoughts and beliefs to realise what is truly holding them back. One way to do this is to first become aware that assumptions exist. And the next is to be willing to challenge them. Here are some ways to do so.
- Challenging your own assumptions This begins with a willingness to become more reflective. When you become more willing to let go of rightness and revisit the thoughts or beliefs you are holding on to, you can discover new insights. It is important to remember that you are not always right. Listen to the verbal cues of how certain of your assumptions are keeping you stuck within your comfort zones. Be aware of how your present emotional states are being influenced by those assumptions.
- Check your limiting beliefs. Whenever you have made an assumption, ask yourself, How did I arrive at this assumption ? Where might that come from? What might I decide differently if my assumption was untrue? Does it lead me to a correct estimate of a situation or is it just a subjective thought? Listening to your self-defeating beliefs and asking intuitive questions can help you challenge your assumptions. Think about what you choose to believe and take a good look at what you are thinking is true.
- Overcome the bias that assumptions are something one shouldn’t make. They are important in any decision-making process. Accept without judgment. This means you are acknowledging that you can live with the consequences of where they lead you and this is important because many right assumptions are beneficial and help you make decisions quickly and accurately. Separate assumptions from facts, and use them in an appropriate context. Most of us tend to be overconfident in our estimates. It is important to allow some space for uncertainty. Sometimes questioning can be used to explore the detail. What is this — based on and what are the consequences of accepting it?
- Challenge others’ assumptions. It is important that you achieve the insight and know how to challenge others’ assumptions. And people will likely to reveal theirs only when you are open to honest communication or when you build trusting relationships with others. The best way to challenge others’ assumptions is to communicate directly with those involved in the decision making process. When you get to know people you gain an in-depth understanding about what they think or why they say what they say.
- Ask open-ended questions. Helping others when assumptions arise and being aware of how they negatively impact an outcome can help you as a leader to challenge others’ assumptions. Asking open-ended questions that challenge their current thinking. What led you to that conclusion? Why do you think it is a correct assumption to make? What if you tried another approach? This way you can get to the core of their thinking and help them discover new insights.
- Practice non- judgment. Common sources of assumptions can be making automatic judgments that stem from associations stored in memory. You will be more successful with a non-judgmental approach when it comes to challenging yours or others’ assumptions. Even though this is a difficult task, consider it as an opportunity to let go of wrong assumptions and be open to receive new perspectives and insights. Strive to gain a deeper understanding of why one thinks a certain way, but from awareness or discovering perspective and not from a judgmental perspective.
- Consider diverse perspectives. Bad assumptions often get based on wrong information and then they tend to play out at every level. So, one must not apply assumptions in the wrong situation nor should make them based on limited information. One should be selective in information one chooses to consider. To reduce the negative effects of cognitive bias, one must base then on various information sources and a diversity of view points.
Questions for self-reflection
How willing are you to challenge your own assumptions? And of others’?
How okay is it for there to be truth outside of what you believe or oversight of what you have already experienced?
Are you someone who quickly jumps to conclusions or decide impulsively?
Do you challenge yourself to see the flip side of your decisions or assumptions?
How do you respond to others’ assumptions?
How willing are you to help others realise the risks of their assumptions?
Which areas of your life can you improve by challenging some of your assumptions starting from today?
What are some of your strategies to verify or disprove that your assumptions are truths?
Challenging your assumptions is key to improve and change. You can have loads of knowledge, information and experience, yet if you hold on to wrong assumptions, you are doomed to fail. If you want to become more effective, it is better to become skilled at identifying unchecked or negative assumptions, and question them to be able to make good decisions. When we give ourselves permission to take a hard look at our thoughts, actions and beliefs, we set ourselves up for an effective decision making process that gets us to the next level and to make the changes we want.
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