The dangers of making assumptions in a changing world

Toy figures that are almost but not all the same

We all make assumptions. We assume that if we set off by a certain time we will arrive by when we need to. We assume that if we behave in a certain way towards our colleagues, customers, friends, and politicians then they will behave in certain ways back towards us. But in a time of churning, any of these assumptions might turn out to be wrong.

In his bestselling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell explained how we all make assumptions, all the time. He gave a tragic example of what can happen when we get our assumptions wrong.

Late one night in February 1999, Amadou Diallo was sitting outside his apartment in New York City as four police officers drove past. They decided he looked suspicious. Backing up their car they were amazed to see he didn’t run: “How brazen this man is!” they thought. And then, as they started walking towards him, Diallo reached into his pocket. In that blink-of-an-eye the officers decided he was dangerous, opened fire, and killed him. Diallo, assuming the police were friendly, was reaching for his wallet.

This is an extreme example but it illustrates the point: when we assume a situation is going to turn out in the same way it did in the past the results can be disastrous.

You will probably have more time than these police officers did to make your decisions, and the results of your choices will probably be less immediate and less stark. But in this time of churning, the fact is that three things are all increasing:

  1. the pressures to take these snap decisions
  2. the negative consequences if we get them wrong, and
  3. the likelihood that the assumptions we are making are based on a past world that no longer matches the way the world works today

What this means is that in this time of change it is worth paying special attention to any assumptions we might be making.

Chapter 2 of Inner Leadership describes the eight common types of mistaken blink-of-an-eye assumptions (or ‘mis-blinks’) we can easily make, especially in a time of change:

  1. Value judgments (“He looks ‘suspicious’.” “The police are here to serve me.”)
  2. Shoulds and expectations (“He should be running away but he is not. How brazen of him!” “I should stand up now.”)
  3. Making assumptions or jumping to conclusions (“He’s reaching for a gun.” “They will want to see my ID.”)
  4. Attachment to outcome
  5. Dependency
  6. Blinkered or extreme thinking
  7. Mistaking feelings for truth
  8. Blaming and scapegoating

The book shows us how to spot these mis-blinks and find alternative interpretations. Applying these tools will help us make better sense of a changing world, increase our confidence, and make us more likely to achieve the outcomes we want.

Have you ever made an assumption that turned out to be wrong? Were there negative consequences? Would it be useful to have a way to think through your assumptions, quickly and clearly?


Adapted from Inner Leadership: tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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