Want To Improve Performance Or Engagement At Work? Check Your Assumptions.

Want To Improve Performance Or Engagement At Work? Check Your Assumptions. 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

Everybody has probably heard the old saying that goes something like this:

You know what happens when you assume? You make an ASS out of U and ME.

Despite first hearing this when I was a kid, I didn’t really understand the wisdom of this silly statement until many years later.

Our assumptions are a powerful force, particularly when they are about other people.

Parenting a teenager helped me learn this lesson. My oldest son Dylan was a good kid all the way through school. He did his school work, was generally kind and respectful, and stayed out of trouble.

But, he was a teenager. And like every person in their teen years (everyone reading this included), he had an abnormally high capacity for doing some stupid things and making irrational decisions. This is incredibly frustrating as a parent and I didn’t always handle things well.

Over time, I came to assume that whenever anything happened that seemed like it could be due to a bad decision on his part, that’s what it was. When something happened that could be his fault, I always assumed that it was.

If something got broken or a door was left open, I assumed he was at fault. And sometimes he was, but not all the time. My assumptions started to create strain in our relationship.

Thankfully, I recognized that I wasn’t being fair to him and if I didn’t do something, it may ruin our relationship. I needed to make some changes.

First, I started to apologize to him any time I let my assumptions get the best of me. When I overreacted or jumped to unfair conclusions, I said I was sorry and vowed to do better in the future. And, I tried to change my assumptions about him.

I started reminding myself more frequently that he was a good kid. This helped me get to an assumption that his intentions were usually good, even if his teen-aged brain sometimes corrupted those intentions into bad decisions or carelessness. I’d love to tell you that I became an ideal parent and showed up better in every situation, but that’s not true. I still made mistakes. I still let old assumptions sneak into my thinking.

But being aware of my assumptions and trying to manage them made me a better parent.

Assumptions at Work

This doesn’t only happen at home. Our assumptions about people profoundly impact our behavior and how we show up in our work.

The place where I have seen this most frequently over the years is in how we confront performance or behavioral issues as managers.

In my experience, when an employee isn’t performing as expected, it’s easy for our assumptions to run wild. The most common assumption that bubbles up in these circumstances is one that is born out of traditional management. It’s that a lack of performance is a choice the employee is consciously making.

I found it both amusing and troubling how often managers would show up in HR wanting to promptly fire an employee for underperforming. These managers were frequently hovering somewhere between frustration with and anger at the employee. As the managers described why they wanted to fire the employee, those stories often made it sound like the employee was actively and maliciously choosing to fail as a way to undermine them. In the most dramatic stories, the manager sounded as if they were under siege by the employee.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Employees don’t choose to fail. And most would do almost anything not to get fired.

But, the manager was operating on a different assumption that resulted in them seeing the employee’s underperformance as a hostile action instead of an opportunity to help.

That’s why in my book, I introduce a very different assumption we can make about employees. This new assumption is based on what I described above, that employees don’t choose to fail. I’ve never met someone who I believe wakes up in the morning and says to themselves, “I hope I fail today.” It sucks when we struggle at work and our boss is after us about doing better. I don’t believe for a second that anyone wants to be in that situation–regardless of how much they might dislike their boss.

What if we instead assumed that every human being’s natural tendency, or default setting, is to perform in the best way we know how? That given the opportunity, a person will always choose to be successful unless they are facing some sort of obstacle or challenge. 

  • How would that change how you approach a performance issue?
  • How would it change how you think about the role of a manager or leader?

Instead of wondering why an employee is choosing not to perform, we would instead ask what barriers or obstacles we need to remove to help the employee. In this way of thinking, a manager doesn’t have to worry about coercing the employee into performing better because she knows the employee would be performing if something wasn’t causing interference. Perhaps the employee isn’t clear on expectations or lacks some key knowledge or skill.

Imagine how this change in thinking would affect the relationship between employee and manager. It’s definitely more fulfilling to be in a relationship where the other person assumes the best of you and is committed to helping you succeed than the alternative.

Assumptions are a powerful thing.

Choose yours wisely.

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