Why can being aware of assumptions as a leader make a difference in outcomes?

By Janet Makepeace, ACC

Can you think of a time when you have provided guidance to complete a task and ended up with an individual going off in a direction you could never have imagined?  Or, worked hard to have your team prepare a deliverable and afterward find out they had different approaches that could have improved the outcome?  Either of these scenarios could be the result of the narrative you are sub-consciously creating in your mind.

Invariably, assumptions occur in your mind and can significantly influence your narrative. They are shaped by how you view and interpret data and, ultimately, inform the actions you take.

This sub-conscious bias is part of a thought process called “The Ladder of Inference.”  First proposed by Chris Argyris, in 1970, the “Ladder of Inference” is a way of describing how you move from observation of data and experience through a series of mental processes to a taking action based on beliefs about the world.

There are seven steps in “The Ladder of Inference:”

  1. I observe data and experiences
  2. I select data from what I observed
  3. I add meanings based on cultural and personal experience
  4. I make assumptions on the meanings I added
  5. I draw conclusions
  6. I adopt beliefs about the world
  7. I take actions based on my beliefs about the world

You need to be aware when making assumptions as a leader that you may be wrong.  Now, you may be thinking, “I can’t help making assumptions based on my view of the world,” and you are absolutely correct.  What you can do is increase your awareness to begin making better leadership judgments resulting in more impactful actions.

It’s essential to recognize assumption development falls in the middle of this mental process, so before you begin drawing conclusions to take action pressure check your thinking.  Here are three practices you can use to test your assumptions.

  • Ask Good Questions: Often, leaders draw conclusions based on data, then delegate and influence their teams to move forward. Before you share your personal assumptions with the group, be curious about what others are thinking.  Sometimes, during this process, leaders forget they have “superhero-like” influencing powers if not based on skill, merely on a title.  Remember to ask others questions because if you don’t, your team may not offer up a different solution.  Think about how you can be curious with your colleagues to test the assumptions you are drawing in the decision-making process.
  • Encourage Feedback: Do you take the time to challenge your own assumptions?  Or, do you assume, judge and act?  Awareness that there are multiple ways to get to the same conclusion is crucial for successfully leading high functioning teams  to produce the best result.  It’s easy to be a confident, decisive leader, but don’t forget you hire talented team members for a reason.  Proactively asking for feedback from colleagues can validate or improve a decision, in addition to creating a collaborative work culture.  Don’t underutilize this resource because you believe you have the answers.
  • Gain Diverse Perspective: What you deliver typically impacts a wide range of people with various views of the world.  Therefore, gaining diverse perspectives beyond your own can alter your own assumptions and enable a better outcome.  Sharing your thoughts regarding the topic and seeking out different viewpoints with trusted confidants can evolve your thinking.  Perspective is a unique and personal skill.  Don’t be afraid to tap the human capital from your network if you feel your assumptions could be off target.

The view through your lens is based on cultural and experiential data you’ve gathered over a lifetime. Taking steps to check your cognitive bias by opening up your mind and welcoming input from others through curiosity, solicitation of feedback and seeking out different views can result in better thought out actions equaling better outcomes.



To expand your ability to test your own assumptions, schedule a consult with Janet.