By Tim Connor, Rodeo! Performance Group, Inc.

Most leaders don’t consider the assumptions they work under every day. But that’s the point! Assumptions affect direction, decisions, delegation, relationships, conflict – there is literally NO area that isn’t affected by our assumptions. Does that mean assumptions are bad? Of course not – they’re inevitable. But great leaders go through a deliberate process to find and test their assumptions – it’s foundational to effective action.

Assumptions: What Are They?

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary describes an assumption as: The act of taking for granted, or supposing a thing without proof; supposition.

Assumptions are sometimes a little difficult to understand, but they’re a daily part of every person’s life.

Where Do We Make Assumptions?

Every decision made by a human being is bedded in assumptions, it has to be. Here are some common, everyday decision areas with their assumptions:

Machinery: We assume that the coffee maker will work, the car will start, the airplane will actually leave the ground – you get the idea.

Travel: To most of us travel is a part of any normal day. We assume that a certain route will be the shortest, that traffic will be at certain levels, that travel times can be predicted. Our decision on our route is based on assumptions from these areas.

Situations: Things get sticky here. We make assumptions about how situations will unfold or continue to unfold based on the decision facing us. Business and organizational strategies are heavily grounded in assumptions made here.

Relationships: Assumptions made within relationships will have drastic results on the ongoing health of that relationship, whether business or personal. Assumptions here relate to the future of income, training and education, attitudes, conflict, and the expected actions of the other following the decision.

People Groups: Both serious benefits and serious problems arise when we make assumptions about people groups, and these assumptions are made all the time.

Political assumptions tend to be particularly deadly, because they affect lives, living, and money in large groups of people. In this area, major facts arising from research can be either missed – or even ignored – because they conflict with other assumptions that are more acceptable to those doing the research. The founding fathers of the United States had this in mind when they touted moral character as being the single most important thing to seek out in a prospective leader. Why? Because such character was an accurate predictor of the assumptions under which that leader would live and operate.

In this article, we’ll look at assumptions regarding people.

How Assumptions Affect Actions

Assumptions are important, because they allow life to move forward quickly and hopefully in a productive way.

When we assume certain characteristics of people, we tend to look for actions on their parts that will bear out our assumptions. If we stop there and don’t go further, we can make grave mistakes that will affect our reactions to both individuals and groups who are in our “assumption focus”.

So how should a great leader routinely go about making good assumptions?

Surfacing Assumptions

The first thing leaders should do is to surface their own assumptions. This is nothing more than selecting an area, either with people or within a situation, and then taking the time to figure out what assumptions are being made there. Where to start?

  • Where are the biggest area of conflict in the decision I’m considering? What actions are likely to result from my decision?
  • What good might come out of my decision? What bad?!
  • Will my decision add extra work to the daily life of those affected by my decision? How much and how often?
  • Will my decision add costs to the business? Are those costs offset by other benefits? Will it cost my employees?
  • Are my assumptions based on selfishness on my part, or am I honestly looking for the good of the people involved? Am I looking for the long term good of the organization?
  • Are my assumptions arising from fears I have? Are those fears accurate, and arising from responsible consideration on my part, or are they purely selfish fears?

Testing Assumptions

Once assumptions have been surfaced, testing assumptions involves digging down and finding out if our assumptions are correct. This process takes work, and most people don’t really care to do it. But a leader HAS to do it, because his or her decision will affect the future of the organization and the people within it.

The questions I use to surface assumptions will lead directly to the research I must do to test my assumptions. If my questions are good ones, research will be fairly straightforward and effective. BUT, it’s a wise leader who makes written notes on research done, as such notes will prove invaluable later when second thoughts occur OR when others want to know how I came to that decision!


Whether related to my own plans, plans regarding my marriage and family, or plans relative to the business I lead, surfacing and testing assumptions is one of the most powerful tools a great leader uses to make solid, long-lasting-for-good decisions!