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  • Writer's pictureNancy Dering Mock

Underlying Assumptions

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

We all operate in the world by basing our decisions and actions on a set of underlying assumptions about people and how the world works. Leaders are no exception. Leaders shape their style, their policies and their culture, sometimes unwittingly, as a reflection of their assumptions about people and how groups and organizations work.

For example:

* What do you believe about most people's intent to do a good job?

* What are your assumptions about most people's level of self-discipline?

* Do you think most people are well-ended and trustworthy?

Unfortunately, leaders' assumptions may be tainted over time by experiences with a relatively few people. It is possible for leaders to become jaundiced by poor performers, problem employees or toxic team members. They can begin to paint all team members with the brush of over-generalized assumptions.

How, then, do leaders keep their assumptions in perspective and shape a style and culture that is based on the best in people?

  1. Assume that people want to do a good job.

The research on this is solid. On any given day, most people come to work intending to

do a good job. (Maybe not stellar, but good.) Unfortunately, many organization's

policies and practices assume exactly the opposite, often creating a stifling, rule-bound


2. Assume that people are grown-ups.

Most people are perfectly capable of handling their lives outside work. Look at the

examples within any team of people who are raising families, continuing their education,

coaching Little League, the list is endless. Yet at work, some organizations operate

from the assumption that employees need "structure," or "guidance," or "direction."

Operating from this assumption is suffocating and stultifying to the self-disciplined,

responsible and reliable people on your team.

3. Assume that people are well-intended.

It is always a challenge to figure out people's intentions. But, most people mean well.

Most people can be counted on to do the "right thing," even when no one is watching.

Speculating about people's motives almost always takes us in the direction of

uncharitable conclusions and erodes relationships.

4. People are trustworthy.

Most people can be counted on to be honest, to behave ethically and to be entrusted

with resources, information, and confidences. Assuming otherwise implicitly conveys

suspicion and distrust, both deadly in building relationships and teams.

Until Proven Otherwise

Effective leaders are not idealistic to a fault. Yes, there will always be the poor

performer, the irresponsible employee, and the untrustworthy team member. But savvy

leaders understand their role in dealing swiftly and capably with these situations, and at

the same time, not allowing these few instances to color their overall assumptions.

One of the challenges of leadership is to continually focus on the majority of employees

who are solid, responsible, well-intended and trustworthy people. These are the people

who best serve as the guide star for a leader's style, policies and culture.

Discussion/Reflection Questions:

  1. Have you, yourself, experienced times when your assumptions about people have been clouded by a small number of employees? Have you seen it in other leaders?

  2. Do you agree that most people want to do a good job, are well-intended and trustworthy?

  3. How do you incorporate these assumptions into your leadership approach? What does "until proven otherwise" mean to you?"

  4. What are the implications for leaders? For you?

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