What feeling do you get when you’re at work and your boss says, “Hey can you come to my office a moment?” Did you get a pit in your stomach just reading it? Does fear crop up every time you think of those words? I can come up with a few other emotions from my own personal experience but I have come to learn I was in the minority. One thing my team vocalized to me early on was that I needed to stop using that sentence because it was stressing them out. Their assumption was that something bad was going to happen if they were ‘called in’. When they first told me this I had a mixed reaction of well that’s just silly and oh no I must really be stressing them out, because I did it all the time. You see, I looked at it as if I called you to my office it is because I need your help. I hired and work with a lot of extremely smart, creative, capable people. Very often I need their expertise to help me better understand a problem, brainstorm a solution, or fill in the gaps in a plan or process that has only been built from one perspective. So when they shared the feedback I thanked them and asked what would better. After some discussion we decided I would do better to either come to them, or explain what I actually needed when I asked them to come to me. I’ve messed up in the years following but all in all I think I’ve made a marked improvement in that area.
OK so cool (brushes hands together) assumptions post over. Take the feedback, be honest, ask some questions, and make a change, done. That is a really small example in a situation where all the stars aligned. People felt completely empowered to share the assumption they had been making and they trusted the system and the leader to make a change (that was really simple to make) and support them moving forward. What happens when it isn’t as cut and dry? What happens when the stakes are higher? Let’s look at another example for Teacher Tricia and Principal Patti.
Tricia and Patti have a pretty good relationship. They’ve only been working together for about a year but so far they understand each other well, are meeting one another’s expectations, and feeling like its been much longer than a year of a relationship. While Tricia is an experienced Science teacher she this is only her first in this district. When she started there were many positives to changing schools but the one drawback was that she needed to share a room this year. Sharing a room as a Science teacher means periodically you need to pack up all everything needed for lessons into boxes, bags, and carts and move to another room for a few hours out of the day, in short a pretty big hassle. Tricia was sure this was only for the year and she could handle it but when the next year schedule came out it was the same again. Everything else was so good that she didn’t want to whine but she was disheartened. Did Patti think so little of her that she didn’t have her own space? It seemed to be going well but was she wrong? Rather than complain while still in her first year, Tricia confided in another teacher. She later decided to take a personal day to get some work done around her home. Meanwhile the other teacher mentioned Tricia’s concerns about the room to Patti who promptly went to work on how it could be fixed. Patti went to Tricia with a compromised solution and during that conversation Tricia mentioned the yard work she would be doing on her personal day. Patti, with maybe even a tear in her eye, said, “I thought you were off to interview other places.”
So that one is a little bigger right? Tricia feels like she can’t or shouldn’t say something because she assumed it would come off wrong. She also assumed that Patti didn’t value her her being there if she put her in the same room situation a second year. Patti assumed that because Tricia didn’t say anything the room share went fine. She then assumed that because Tricia wasn’t coming to her with the concern and had a day off planned that she was unhappy overall and looking to leave. Every single one of those was false and lead to a lot of stress on both parties for no reason.
I don’t want to go too far down the road of why we make these assumptions. People create that out of their own personal reality. We are all living in a slightly different situation than anyone else because of our current circumstances and history. To go back to the beginning, my team is comfortable with me (as evident that they are comfortable coaching up) but history has told them that being ‘called in’ is bad. Bad things happen when you have an impromptu meeting in your bosses office. Same is true of Tricia and Peggy. Tricia likely had a past where speaking up was not OK. Patti may have had a history of losing teachers over logistics or maybe the last teacher to take a personal day was in fact for an interview. I could go on forever, I mean, the psychology behind it is fascinating but the more important reality is to say that we (and everyone else) are going to make assumptions. Trying to make less will only benefit you but at the end of the day, understanding how to navigate them will be more useful.
Like most things, whether the example is big or small, the steps remain the same; be honest, ask questions, and take some action to fill the gap. This applies whether it is a simple wording issue or a concerns over whether you’re wanted in, or happy in, your role. Be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling and why. Is there anything objective to support your assumption? Talk to the person you’re making the assumption about. If you’re comfortable you can ask them straight out what is going on, like my team did. If you’re not that comfortable, you can ask other questions. What is your intent when you do or say X? Is the schedule final? Is there more I can do that you were expecting? Then provide solutions, talking about how we feel can be nice for some people and uncomfortable for others but in the end, like it or not, it has minimal impact unless something is done. So plan the action too. Plan to communicate more or better. Look at the schedule for options. You’ll pick up on what the areas are to work on or improve as you discuss the answers to your questions and some of the other person’s too. In the end, while we try to limit assumptions, we’re all going to make them sometimes. It takes so much time and effort to spiral on the assumptions we’re making. Having a process to recognize and move through them will allow you to focus on things that really matter.