The dangers of making assumptions in a changing world

Toy figures that are almost but not all the sameWe 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, friends, and politicians then they will behave in a certain way back to us. But in a time of churning, even our best 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. 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 the point: when we assume that a situation is going to turn out the same way as it did in the past, the results can be disastrous.

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

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 (“He should be running away from us! 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. Mistaking feelings for truth
  8. Blaming and scapegoating

Chapter 2 of Inner Leadership describes how to spot these mis-blinks and how to find alternative interpretations.

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

Do you ever find yourself making unconscious assumptions about what a situation means, how it is going to turn out, or how a person is behaving towards you? Does this bring unhelpful emotional reactions? Might you be mistaken? Would it be useful to you to be able to see more clearly?


Adapted from Inner Leadership: tools for building emotional engagement and inspiration during times of change. Buy the Book

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