Flawed Assumptions

Flawed Assumptions

Project managers should check their assumptions when it comes to their ability to empathize, predict and anticipate with teams.


Everyone makes assumptions-both consciously and unconsciously-based on their past experiences. As project managers, we predict our potential for success or failure, and anticipate problems and solutions, based on these assumptions. The challenge for each of us is to be aware of the many assumptions we operate on.

Assumptions can be helpful at the outset of a project, but they require validation and calibration over time. Only with these quality checks do we ensure that our decision-making is as accurate as it can be. Good project managers draw up an assumptions log and keep it up-to-date.

For example, we often conduct each meeting, each interaction, with a set of assumptions about the people we work with. When we talk with colleagues, we assume they're listening and available for a conversation, interaction or meeting. We assume they care about what they do and are ready to get things done.

But sometimes an individual's personal life can create challenges for him or her in the workplace. For example, a member of the team is frequently late and distracted. The team member has had conversations with the line manager about being "always late, and really not interested." This could lead to the project manager being curt, demanding or even seeking disciplinary action or removal of the team member.

However, the individual may be addressing significant personal challenges while still seeking to maintain his or her role at work. Without taking the time to discuss and understand, the project manager's assumption could lead to unnecessary action.

It's significantly easier to adapt or change when we are already conscious of our biases. This consciousness provides each of us permission to check our understanding and question our stance.

Referring back to the assumptions we make can help us become more resilient to comments and reactions as individuals. For example, if a colleague is unreceptive or dismissive, we can choose to inquire as to why the response is less than we'd hoped for, rather than assuming we understand his choice of how or her motivation. We then have a to acknowledge the response:

  • Exploring: Asking questions to understand his or her reasoning
  • Responding: Choosing to extend or redirect the conversation, in the event that the phrasing or timing (or both) were unfortunate
  • Withdrawing: Stepping back to consider the reasons this may have occurred. Checking our thinking, approach and, of course, our assumptions

Working under assumptions means we sometimes forget to be humane in our approach and can be taciturn or neglectful. While most of us have to work for a living, we generally make greater efforts and achieve a higher level of satisfaction if we are respected, appreciated and valued as part of an effective team.

To quote actor Alan Alda, "Begin challenging your assumptions. Your assumptions are the windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while or the light won't come in."

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