UNTESTED ASSUMPTIONS

I am often asked what I believe is a manager’s worst enemy on the job. One of my favorite answers is “AN UNTESTED ASSUMPTION”. And is it ever easy to assume them and act on them to our detriment. A lot has to do with how our brain works. Two fairly recent books shed significant light on how easy it is at times to jump to the wrong conclusion about something based upon little or no confirming information, or what turns out to be a pattern-defying random event we misread.

Jonah Lehrer’s “How We Decide” provides a highly readable, fascinating, neuroscience-based journey inside the mysterious workings of the human mind. While Lehrer makes clear that our best decisions and drawn conclusions are generally a well balanced blend of reason and feeling, his second chapter in particular — “Fooled by Feeling” — makes the danger of drawing and acting upon untested assumptions compellingly obvious. In a similar vein, Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” — a book about how we often think without thinking — explores both the good and the bad elements of the snap judgments that so often guide our actions.

So what do we do? If acting upon an untested assumption is sometimes your worst enemy, I believe your best friend in these circumstances is your ability to ask clear, objective questions designed to discover the confirming or disconfirming facts you need. Yes, in the hectic, fast-paced world most of us must navigate, taking the time to question and dig deeper is not always easy but the rewards are generally worth avoiding the sometimes serious downside of a misguided action.

Over the years, I have observed that the best managers are invariably the best questioners. They react to events in measured responses, take little as given, work to suspend judgment, are wary of conventional wisdom, and strive to see things from many sides. They probe with questions that betray no bias or their obvious opinion, and which seek to gain “the facts”.

Developing the skill to ask the right questions will not always guarantee that one’s subsequent actions will always be the correct choice. These skills will, however, reduce the likelihood of a foolish misguided response.

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity at a Harvard seminar to hear the actual recorded tapes of The Executive Committee (EXCOM) meetings chaired by then President John Kennedy during the terrifying seven days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the world stood on the brink of a nuclear war, President Kennedy was being bombarded with one untested assumption after another by his articulate and persuasive EXCOM colleagues concerning what the Russians would and would not do in response to US actions. What surprised me hearing the tapes was how infrequently the President actually spoke. He listened. Moreover, when he did speak, it was often in the form of a penetrating question designed to differentiate opinions from fact. If ever there was a time for effective Presidential management of a crisis that was it. And Kennedy’s questioning mind served him and his country extremely well.

Terry Joseph Busch

Amazon Links to “How We Decide” & “Blink”:

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