Itchin’ For a Fight: Why Assumptions Are Dangerous (Especially when you are drinking)

Imagine that you are having a cocktail at the bar while you are waiting for your plane to board. A man sits next to you, bumps your arm and you spill your drink. A recent study shows that the more you have been drinking, the more likely it is that you will assume that he did it on purpose. The less rational (or sober) you are, the more likely it is that you will make assumptions about the motives and intentions of others. Often, in leadership training sessions, participants will brag about how clever they are in “sizing people up.” In other words, making assumptions about people. They may say, “Suzie’s just jealous because I got the promotion.” Or, “John will freeze up the minute he is put into a high stakes situation.” While the notion persists that these sorts of intuitive leaps are a trait of good leaders, the evidence does not truly support that. Certainly, decision making is complex and there are many situations where quick thinking has helped avert a crisis or helped a team come up with an innovative solution. Malcolm Gladwell talks about “thinking without thinking” in his book, Blink[1] . In one example, he talks about the Emergency Room doctors at Cook County Hospital in Chicago[2]. The doctors were instructed to gather less information about patients who presented certain symptoms. They were to focus on a small handful of indicators, or as Gladwell puts it, a “thinner slice” of experience. As a result, they were able to improve their success rate in diagnosing and treating chest pain. Airline pilots often make these kinds of decisions. Military leaders often must make such decisions in the heat of battle. In fairness, many executives have become very successful by making quick, apparently seat-of-the-pants decisions based on very little information. Whether this is “intuition” or not remains debatable. The Cook County doctors arguably could not make good diagnostic decisions based on “thinner slices” of experience without many decades of preparation and first-hand experience. The airline pilot can make split second decisions because he or she has been well trained and lived through similar situations thousands of times and can evaluate a lot of information (and eliminate a lot of information) very quickly. The same can be said of the military leader and the corporate executive.

Eleadership training skill development conflict resolutionven creativity has been shown to be related to rigorous, disciplined preparation. What seems on the surface to be inspiration is, in fact, the result of many years of skill development. When we watch an Olympic skater or a compelling actress, or a terrific chef at work, we think, “How talented! They must have been born with something very special.” While few would argue that certain inherited traits (size, muscle mass, long fingers, etc.) don’t play an important role in performance whether in sports, business, the arts, or politics, the fact is that most success is attributable to training, skill development, and plain old hard work.

History is replete with examples of poor judgment and disasters that are due to people over estimating their intuitive abilities. Recall that it was intuitively obvious that the Sun revolved around the Earth despite the meticulous measurement and research done by Galileo. Every year in Phoenix, we have dozens of drivers who end up stranded in underpasses after rainstorms despite repeated warnings on television, newspapers, and radio. “It’s not that deep. I can make it.” Our intuition and assumptions often fail us. “Most people tend to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for the actions of others. A NewYorker article by James Surowiecki discusses a classic experiment where subjects shown a person shooting a basketball in a gym with poor lighting and another person shooting a basketball in a gym with excellent lighting assume that the second person hit more shots because he was a better player[3]. ” When we see others fail, we tend to assume it is because of some innate weakness in that other person (She’s lazy or weak or scared). When we fail, we tend to assume it is because of circumstances (The lighting is bad. My boss won’t let me do anything.). “I have reasons but other people have excuses.”

Sometimes, what looks like magic or intuition is a highly developed skill. Gladwell describes the skill of a man named Silvan Tomkins who could read nonverbal communication cues so well that he could always tell who was lying and never lost a poker game. But still, it was not intuition but a magnificently developed skill. Charlatans and con artists have developed these skills. The “mind reader” at the carnival has become very adept at reading the nonverbal cues of the customers.
The job interview is a notoriously unreliable tool for determining who will or won’t be successful in a new job but we tenaciously cling to the practice. Many think, “The reason others don’t do well at interviewing is because they do not have my keen intuitive abilities. I will certainly do better. I will beat the law of averages because I have superior judgment.” Well, probably not.

We encounter this phenomenon at work every day. We assume that our colleagues are lazy, incompetent, malicious, or naïve (or smart, thoughtful, decisive, etc.). We assume that our bosses are manipulative, uncaring, hypocritical, or obsessive (or generous, caring, intelligent, etc.). When someone makes a mistake, we infer that they are not paying attention. When our manager makes a decision with which we disagree, we infer that she is just trying to please her manager. While all of these assumptions and inferences may be true, we do not know for sure what drives a person to do what they do. The fact is that we cannot know what goes on in someone else’s head. Ever. It is always guesswork.

I am not suggesting that you should not make an effort to better understand your co-workers, teammates and bosses. By paying closer attention to them, listening to what they say (really listening), and engaging them in meaningful conversations you will surely develop better working relationships. But it is important to recognize the limits of our ability to “read minds” or understand the motivations of other people. Be cautious of over-interpreting assessment instruments or last year’s performance review. Be skeptical of colleagues’ evaluations of new team members. Your leadership training should favor a deliberative, fact-based approach to understanding your people. Save your “gut feelings” for crises and situations in which there is very little to go on. Even then, it is wise to keep in mind that you could be wrong. Do your homework. Check your evaluations of people with others whom you trust. Test your assumptions and inferences. Accept responsibility when you make a mistake. When possible, rely on what you actually see and hear and leave “intuition” to the mystics. Most people respect a sober, intelligent analysis over fancy speculation. And, in the long run, you will make better decisions and the conflicts will be less severe.

[1] Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Back Bay Books, Little, Brown. 2005.

[2] Gladwell, Malcolm.



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