The dangers of making assumptions in a changing world

legoWe all make assumptions. We assume that if we set off by a certain time we will arrive by the time we need to. We assume that if we behave in a certain way towards our colleagues, customers, family, and friends then they will behave in a certain way back towards us. And we assume that our fellow citizens will not vote to commit economic suicide or to elect a president with zero experience of public office. But in a time of churning all of these assumptions may no longer hold true.

In his bestselling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking Malcolm Gladwell described how we all make unconscious assumptions all of the time. Sometimes we get them right, he said, and sometimes we get them wrong.

As an example of what can happen when we get our assumptions wrong he told the tragic story of Amadou Diallo. Late one night in February 1999 Diallo was outside his apartment as four New York City police officers drove past. They decided he looked suspicious. Backing up their car they were amazed to see that he didn’t run from them. “How brazen this man is!”, they thought. And then, as they got out of the car and walked towards him, Diallo reached into his pocket. In that blink of an eye the officers decided he was dangerous and opened fire, killing him. It turned out he was reaching for his wallet.

This is an extreme example but it illustrates my point: when we assume that a situation is going to turn out the same way as our experiences of the past the results can be disastrous.

In your working life you probably face less pressure and have more time to take your decisions than these police officers did, and the results of your choices will be less immediate and less dramatic. But the fact is that in this time of churning, the pressures we face to take these snap decisions are increasing. So is the likelihood that the situations we face will not match our assumptions about the past. And the negative consequences we are likely to face if we make a wrong assumption are also increasing.

What all this means is that in a time of change it is worth paying special attention to look out for the mistaken blink-of-an-eye decisions, or “mis-blinks”, we can all make.

There are eight common types:

  1. Value judgments (“He looks suspicious.”)
  2. Shoulds and expectations (“Why isn’t he running away? How brazen!”)
  3. Making assumptions or jumping to conclusions (“He’s reaching for a gun.”)
  4. Attachment to outcome
  5. Dependency
  6. Blinkered or extreme thinking
  7. Blaming and scapegoating
  8. Mistaking feelings for truth

Chapter 2 of Inner Leadership describes how to spot them and how to find alternative interpretations.

Doing this brings us a clearer sense of a changing world and we become more likely to achieve the outcomes we seek. It also deepens the centring and grounding we began in Chapter 1.


Adapted from Inner Leadership.


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