Examining your assumptions


We work with a whole range of remote teams in different industries and different organizations across the world. But despite their variety, we hear the same sorts of things from their managers all the time.

“No one takes our online meetings seriously. They’re all on mute answering their email.” Or: “They’ll view my checking in with them as not trusting them.” And what about: “My people are top notch. They don’t need me meddling.”

What all these comments have in common is they are assumptions about what’s going on, rather than statements of fact (no matter how vehemently they’re said.)

Assumptions aren’t bad things. Like rationalization, we’d never get out of bed in the morning without a reasonable belief in the way things are. They are the working model under which we do our work. They become a problem when the outcomes we desire don’t match the assumptions we’re making.

For example, when you assume that people will reach out to you or the rest of the team if there’s a problem (the “no news is good news” school of management), we may get unpleasant surprises if a deadline is missed, or the quality of the work isn’t what’s expected. And the assumptions go both ways; you assume the person understands the parameters of the work involved, they assume they’re doing the right thing. Without some kind of feedback somewhere in the process, good people can go very wrong.

Here’s where a lot of people suffer a little cognitive dissonance: how can we say we trust our people if we’re constantly checking up on them? Testing your assumptions is not the same thing as micro-managing, at least if it’s done well. Here are some key things to keep in mind:

Are the assumptions you’re making clear to both sides? Is your understanding of the assignment and the other person’s the same? Does the other person clearly understand that your lack of contact is a sign of trust, rather than neglect? How do you know? Although the whole point of assumptions is that they are usually unspoken, this can be a major point of contention.

Closed ended questions don’t really get you honest answers. One of the great ironies is that asking someone directly, “do you understand?” gives you no assurance of understanding, even if the answer is an emphatic “yes”. Rather than, “do you need anything?” you’ll find the answer is often very different if you phrase it as, “what will help you?” or “what might get in the way of successfully doing this?” The other person doesn’t want to sound unconfident or uncertain when answering you, and that might get in the way of any assistance you or the team can offer.

Communication is less ominous when it’s consistent. As deadlines approach, it’s not unusual to communicate with your team members more often. That is natural, and if everyone’s expectations are set accordingly, it shouldn’t create tension or drama. If you’ve been conspicuous by your absence, and suddenly the number of times you call or check in increases dramatically, your legitimate attempts to help might be misinterpreted as intrusions or a lack of trust.

When communication is expected, scheduled, and consistent, you’ll have better quality conversations and your time will be better spent as people will treat it as part of the work, rather than an interruption do doing their “real work”

So take time periodically to check your assumptions about how you work with your team and individual reports. Are things clicking along? Are there visible signs that misunderstandings are occurring? By checking your assumptions with the other person from time to time, you can avoid problems down the road.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.