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Underlying Assumptions

Brain_lockRecently, a former student posted on Facebook, asking that her friends share our pet peeves. As a moderate Republican, I commented that my pet peeve was "when people assume that ALL Republicans are anti-environment, anti-education, anti-people, pro-Christian-right, and pro-greed." I was surprised when another of her friends responded by saying that his pet peeve was "When Republicans lie and say they aren't anti-environment, anti-education, anti-people, pro-Christian-right, and pro-greed."

I have to admit, I was fairly incensed. After all, this individual didn't know me as a person, didn't bother to learn anything about me. He had it in his mind that ALL Republicans were just one way. Evidently, it's still politically correct to stereotype and bash Republicans. I was even more irritated this was an employee at the university where I teach... and he probably didn't realize he'd just defamed a faculty member online. My final point of irritation was he was a person of color who had, I'm guessing, probably been the victim of stereotyping himself at some point in his life; evidently embracing diversity only went one way in his mind.

But, like all who stereotype and label, he was operating on a foundation of very strong underlying assumptions. First, every Republican he's encountered in his life must have fallen into his preconceived framework. Second, anyone who did not fall into those underlying assumptions must be lying.

Underlying assumptions are tricky things. They really do affect our behaviors in so many of our daily transactions. If you assume somebody on your team is lazy or incompetent, you may be inclined to go behind their back, second-guess their work, or start micromanaging them. If you assume somebody is out to get you, you may start to build walls. If you assume somebody has supported you on issues in the past, they will support you on upcoming issues.

How do you over come a severe case of underlying assumptions?

  1. For starters, call them out. When somebody makes a strong statement like "Bob couldn't handle that assignment," simply note that seems like a very strong statement to have made about Bob.
  2. Next, get at the assumptions themselves. What do you believe to be true about Bob that makes you think he can't handle the assignment? (Note, this is best done in a one-on-one format rather than in a meeting forum.)
  3. How did you arrive at those assumptions? What behaviors did Bob display? (Focus on tangible behaviors or statements, not hearsay or innuendo.) Did the offending party read the behaviors correctly? Was there a pattern of behavior or simply a one-time activity? Did you provide Bob with feedback regarding the behaviors when you saw them?
  4. Can you refute the assumptions if they are not valid? Can you give the assignment to Bob, make him aware of the assumptions, and then set him up for success?

Another element in this discussion is trust. If trust is absent in the relationship, assumptions can run rampant much more easily. Since I have no personal or business relationship with this Republican-bashing friend-of-a-friend, I'll probably just let him wallow in his ignorance.

So... what assumptions are you carrying about others? What underlying assumptions have others made about you?

Another great resource on this topic is the book, Leadership and Self-Deception, by the Arbinger Institute. This quick read does a great job of demonstrating how and why we put boxes around other people (and ourselves) and arrive at the assumptions we do.

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