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Challenge assumptions; they could lead to disengagement

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Imagine you are driving down the highway. A car swerves from the other lane, cuts you off and speeds away.

More than likely your first instinct would be to be angry with that person. You may think they are a jerk, a bad driver or something worse.

Labeling them as a bad driver or an inconsiderate jerk is based on assumptions we all hold. Assumptions are based partially on stories we tell ourselves to make sense out of any situation.

The story we tell ourselves in this case is that the driver is dumb or inconsiderate, and definitely distracted.

How would the story change if you saw an injured person in the car, or a child choking? Would that change your assumptions and the corresponding story you tell yourself that led to it?

These stories that we tell ourselves and the assumptions we hold also can negatively affect our daily lives, personally and professionally. Our day-to-day interactions with friends and colleagues all are affected and shaped by these stories and subsequent assumptions that develop.

As managers, we must recognize that our direct reports and people we work with all are acting on assumptions they make every day.

Sometimes these assumptions get in the way of good work being done. Perhaps they are a cause of employee dissatisfaction and turnover.

A good practice to put in your toolbox is reflective skepticism. Another term for this is learning through reflection.

It can be done alone, though is best done with a partner.

At its core, learning through reflection allows us to look closely at assumptions we hold. We then challenge these assumptions.

After challenging these assumptions, they are either reinforced or are shown to be false, in which case we develop new assumptions.

Holding an assumption isn't bad. If you see a snake with a rattle at the end of its tail, it is safe to assume the snake is a threat.

In this case, our assumption is working to keep us safe. This assumption has been thoroughly challenged and has held up.

In cases where someone hasn't taken time to reflect on his assumptions, using reflective skepticism exercises can be very beneficial in either reinforcing one's assumptions or bringing new ways of thinking.

Two people sit across from another and one person tells the other about his issue, the roadblocks, fears and concerns. The person listening should do so actively without interrupting during the time (generally three to five minutes).

Their goal is to see if they can find an underlying assumption that is being held.

Say, for instance, the speaker is noting that he doesn't offer ideas in meetings anymore because he feels he is being ignored and that he no longer contributes because of that.

The conversation may go something like this:

Person 1: “From what I am hearing, you no longer contribute during meetings. I believe you may holding an assumption that your ideas are seen as not worth investigating. Please elaborate on why specifically you believe that.”

Person 2: “Every idea that I've presented it not acted upon, and I'm tired of giving ideas if no one does anything about them.”

Person 1: “Do other people give ideas, and if so are those ideas acted upon.”

Person 2: “No, no one's ideas get acted upon, actually.”

Person 1: “Do you think there may be other actions at work here? How can you test this to see if perhaps there is a better time to present ideas? Who would you talk to about this?”

During the entire exercise, anecdotes and comparisons are encouraged. The goal is to give the person you are reflecting with a mechanism to test his assumptions.

After investigating, they may find that key decision-makers were not present during meetings, and therefore nothing could be acted on. Perhaps the purpose of the meeting was to get information, and that ideas would come at a later date.

These would throw out your assumptions. You also may find that your assumptions were valid.

Either way, your assumptions are stronger.

The goal of the exercise is to help the reflector look at what assumptions he is holding.

He then must do things to test that assumption and see if it is valid. He then has his assumptions reinforced, or the old one is thrown out.

This exercise can be challenging, but when done with honesty, it is extremely powerful and can help build better-engaged employees, reduce conflict and increase productivity.

Tom Bux is the director of the Center for Leadership and Workforce Development (workforce.lccc.edu) at Lehigh Carbon Community College, Schnecksville. He can be reached at tbux@lccc.edu.

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