The High Cost of Assumptions

A few months back I began a presentation on transformational leadership to 40 high-potential managers with a simple request: “May I borrow a one dollar bill?”

After a little hesitation one guy waved a dollar in the air. I asked him to bring it and join me in front of the group, but he said “No.” I promised I wouldn’t embarrass him but he still refused. Disappointed, I thanked him and let him know that I needed someone willing to come up.

Fortunately a woman offered another dollar and she joined me. I held the bill up so all could see, folded it four times, and then unfolded it to reveal that it had changed into a $100 bill. This was my way of letting the group know that we were there to learn how to lead transformation – that’s BIG change. The woman took her new $100 bill and returned to her seat with a very big smile.

The next morning I was invited to join the group as they debriefed my presentation, discussing what they learned and how it would influence the ways in which they lead. The guy who first offered his dollar bill spoke, “I’ve thought a lot about what happened with the dollar bill.” The serious tone of his comment caused a hush.

“When I was a kid I was very seriously interested in magic. I even got a job working in the local magic shop. The magicians that hung out there saw audience volunteers as targets for their jokes. They had many lines aimed at making fun of volunteers, presumably for the audience’s enjoyment.”

“When Andrew asked me to join him in front of the group I made an assumption based on my past experience. There was no way I was going to be humiliated in front of my peers. By the end of his presentation I realized that Andrew doesn’t humiliate people. I made an incorrect assumption and as a result I missed out on a hundred bucks.”

“This morning I’m wondering how often I, and my people, make erroneous assumptions that prevent us from opportunities. I’m going to share this story with my team and we’re going to use it as a reminder to question our assumptions. When we have an opportunity that we don’t pursue I’m going to ask them, ‘Is this a $100 opportunity? Are we saying no based on a past experience that may not apply?’”

Our assumptions are based on past experiences. We store experiences in our brains and when it comes time to decipher a situation we refer to those past experiences in order to know what to think and do. Those stored assumptions are insidious – we’re not conscious of them. The process of referencing past experiences to make sense of present moments happens without our awareness and faster than the blink of an eye.

Of course not all assumptions are negative. Some assumptions help us create positive expectations and move us forward. It’s the assumptions that are based in fear that hold us back. Fear-based assumptions can really take over, they get their barbed hooks into us and we feel compelled to protect ourselves.

The first step in moving beyond this way of thinking is to realize when you’re reacting to fearful expectations. I recommend you start to CYA: Check Your Assumptions. Here are a few questions to help you CYA.

  • What past experience informs my thinking about this situation?
  • Is my past experience true in this situation?
  • What alternative outcomes are possible if I suspend the belief that the same experience will happen again?
  • How does my past experience inform the current situation, but not necessarily define it?

And of course the final question, “Is this a $100 opportunity?”

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