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Don’t Let Assumptions Kill Your Collaboration

We all depend upon others in order to do our best work. Don’t allow your misplaced assumptions to drive a wedge between you and your peers.

Have you ever had the sense, as you were talking with a coworker, that even though you were talking about something familiar to both of you, you were speaking different languages?

You suddenly realized in that moment that, while you thought you were aligned, you each had very different understandings of what was actually happening with the project or client.

A key source of this kind of misalignment is assumptive behavior or beliefs that – over time – become organizational ruts. You assume that you and your fellow team members are all on the same page because you’re privy to all of the same information, but how that information is absorbed and interpreted is a very personal thing, and can lead to sharp division if you don’t seek common understanding.

Management theorist Peter Drucker wrote, “Every enterprise requires commitment to common goals and shared values… Management’s first job is to think through, set, and exemplify those objectives, values, and goals.” Because of the fluid, collective-minded way that many of us collaborate today, I would go one step further and argue that it’s the responsibility of each team member to ensure that they are speaking the same language as their peers, and that the team is aligned around commonly understood objectives. No assumptions.

We all move too quickly, and the stakes are often too high for us to waste energy spinning our wheels or failing to lock into a collective rhythm. Here are a few quick ways to gain better alignment and kill your assumptions.

Immediately note and question any perceived misunderstandings

It’s easy to gloss over an errant comment in a meeting or a seemingly mis-aligned action as meaningless, but they are often clues to a deeper misunderstanding of the objectives or culture. In a courteous and sincere way, ask your peer what they mean by their statement, or what they were thinking when they took that particular action. It’s better to have that uncomfortable conversation now than to have to take massive corrective action later.

Regularly scan your own thinking for possible assumptions

We live by assumption. We don’t have the ability to process every situation as if it’s new, so we have to develop a system of predictions about what will and won’t happen next. Some of those assumptions are probably valid (gravity will continue to operate as it did yesterday), and some might be invalid (our clients want today what they wanted yesterday, or my relationship with my peer is fine.) It helps to regularly scan your own methods and thoughts for potential areas of assumption or misalignment. As a part of your weekly checkpoint, ask, “what am I assuming to be true?”, and “what am I assuming to be false?”, then ask “what if they weren’t so?”

Take five minutes now to save five hours later

At the end of each meeting, take five minutes to clarify objectives, talk specific next actions and accountability, and ensure that there is common alignment. Also, to the best of your ability, attempt to foster an environment in which others are able to ask questions without fear of reprisal. Put your guns on the table. No one wins when everyone is perpetually on the defensive.

We all depend upon others in order to do our best work. Don’t allow your misplaced assumptions to drive a wedge between you and your peers. Make a commitment this year to drive as much assumptive behavior out of your life (and team) as you can.

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Last modified: December 1, 2022

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