Check Your Assumptions Before they Sink Your Decisions

By Tom Davidson

Assumptions can get the best of us sometimes, but before you go all out – be sure you ask some questions and get some facts! Choice words for business and in every day life!

As a manager, you will need to make many decisions, and most of them will be wrong. Not because you aren’t smart or well-intentioned but because you will be making too many assumptions and jumping to too many conclusions without even knowing it. Here’s a simple example of something you will do every day, called climbing the “ladder of inference” to the wrong action (Chris Argyris, 1974).

Mailbox baseball
I live in the country at the end of a long gravel driveway, and we still get the Sunday paper delivered to a little plastic box by the road. After retrieving the paper one Sunday, all was well until my wife and I returned to the roadside to do some gardening, where we found the newspaper box and mailboxes broken, bent and mangled!

I knew immediately that some local high-school students had played one of their vicious games of “mailbox baseball,” where one kid rides in the back of a pickup truck with a baseball bat and hits mailboxes as his buddies drive along country roads like mine. It had happened a few times before, so it wasn’t hard to figure out that they had ridden by that morning – after I picked up the paper – probably mad because they’d missed our box the night before.

Steamed, I told my wife what I was going to do about, and this time “no more mister nice guy” as I started for the phone. Fortunately, no one answered my call at the neighbor’s house where the culprits lived. Good thing, because a short time later, the dairy farmer across the road stopped by and apologized for tearing up the mailboxes with his tractor and harrow! Turns out, he had misjudged the width of the road as he got passed by a car that morning and caught the posts with his powerful machinery.

Climbing the ladder of inference
According to Argyris, here’s what happens when we climb the ladder of inference, sometimes in only milliseconds.

1. Observe something. In my real-life example, I saw a mangled newspaper and mailbox at the end of my driveway. As a manager, you’ll see performance problems, people arguing, and missed deadlines.

2. Select part of the data. In my mailbox story, I focused on the damaged posts and boxes but ignored the extent of the damage, the time of day, and the short timeframe when it must have happened. As a manager, you’ll hear one side of the story without getting others, see an outcome of a poor working relationship without understanding the root cause, or witness the aftermath of an accident without knowing the circumstances, in all cases missing important information that you instantaneously ignore.

3. Make meaning of what we see. At lightning speed, you’ll arrive at assumptions that make meaning of what you saw, not only helping you make sense of the situation but driving your thinking and problem solving more than you realize. Based on earlier experiences with this kind of damage, I assumed that the destruction was done by malicious vandals, not my well-meaning neighbor.

4. Draw conclusions based on these assumptions. Having drawn reasonable-enough assumptions, next you will draw conclusions based on these convenient-but-erroneous suppositions. In my case, I concluded that the same high-school kids as before had come back that morning, upset after missing my mailboxes the night before. It was an elaborate story based only on brief and unchecked glimpse at the data, and it was completely wrong.

5. Develop a belief system about similar situations and people. Unchallenged or uncorrected, enough wrongly based conclusions like this could lead to an ingrained belief system that my mailboxes will continue to be easy targets and need to be reinforced or removed to avoid this kind of result in the future, when nothing could be further from the truth.

6. Take action based on my beliefs. Worst of all, I almost called the neighbors and accused their young family members of wrongdoing, long before I understood the situation and given them the slightest benefit of a doubt. The unintended consequence of my premature action would have been embarrassing and destructive.

What I had just done was something we all do dozens or hundreds of times a day, climb the ladder of inference without knowing it and without thinking about it. We see a situation, select just enough information to make assumptions, and leap to the wrong conclusions and action plans, usually in a matter of milliseconds. Many of these little trips will be inconsequential but others will have real consequences for you and your reputation as a manager and a leader.

To stop the erroneous ascent up the ladder of inference, you must first recognize that it’s happening. That means suspending your naturally occurring assumptions and holding them as temporary hypotheses while you check things out, ask questions, collect more data, and get someone else’s perspectives. It won’t take long, and you’ll save yourself from bad decisions, bad actions and a bad reputation.

What else might you do to check out the facts before jumping to too many assumptions, conclusions and wrong-headed actions like mine?

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