9 Ways to Challenge Your Assumptions

There is a silent, guiding force in your life that has more influence than you imagine.  

We instinctively know the impact friends and family have on how we live our lives. We know how powerful our dreams and aspirations can be for affecting how we carry on. We know how our desire to be healthy can affect our habits, or how our romantic interest in someone can affect our behavior. All are forces in our world as seen and felt as a driving rain.

But do we ever stop to really consider how our assumptions shape and mold our actions, behaviors and our lives? The impact is profound. Our assumptions can derail dreams, stop progress in its tracks, self-impose limits, create self-fulfilling prophecies, distort motives and harm relationships, kill creativity and lead us down unwanted paths.  Some assumptions we make with great awareness. Many others are on autopilot, running our lives and guiding our decisions like a subconscious consigliore.  

But do we ever stop to really consider how our assumptions shape and mold our actions, behaviors and our lives?

Now, I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking – “assume you’ll succeed and you will” kind of stuff. I’m talking about assumptions taken as fact, that become beliefs, and that ultimately misguide us. It is up to us to tunnel our way out of a life constricted by tunnel vision. When we challenge our assumptions, a veil lifts and new possibilities open up. We shatter misconceptions that have weighed us down. We leave behind “knowing syndrome” and embrace “growing syndrome.” We see the world differently, more clearly, more vibrantly and the power of truth unfolds before our eyes.

Here are nine ways to help set those truths free in your work life, and life in general:

1. Remember all of the stakeholders

Assumptions are often based on what may or may not be true; think of all the stakeholders involved and how they’d view your assumptions. Would the product supply team agree that you will have enough capacity? Would the researchers agree they can deliver the innovation on time? Would the finance person agree that your investment will generate acceptable returns?

2. Force fresh perspective

We can fall into a pattern of operating repeatedly within the same set of assumptions because we continually see things with the same perspective. Break the stasis and bring in fresh viewpoints. Add outsiders to a brainstorming session. Bring back people who were part of better, winning days and talk to them about what drove success at that time. Conduct a session where you view the world through a competitor’s eyes and model their responses to your moves. Whatever the source, create some tension with the status quo.  

Whatever the source, create some tension with the status quo.

3. Watch your language

Words of absolutism can sneak into our assumptions, turning accurate statements into over-generalizations.  Pause when you use words and phrases like “never”, “always”, “all of” and “none of.”  Take time to really qualify your qualifiers.   

4. Think like a science teacher

Assumptions are essentially hypotheses. In the world of science, hypotheses are either accepted or refuted with proof.  Call out assumptions when you hear them to raise awareness. Then ask yourself if the assumption on the table has been actually proven, and if so, does it still hold true?  

5. Question your questions

As a leader, you can closely examine the types of questions you ask the team, ensuring you have a helpful dose of assumption-challenging questions in the mix. Of course you shouldn’t pester the team with an unending stream – this is about reexamining the portfolio of leadership questions you ask. Perhaps fewer information requests or status update questions, and more assumption challenging questions are in order.

6. Expand time

Many assumptions are based on past history – don’t get stuck there. Regard the past, yes, but don’t disregard what may have changed. That said, it’s also important not to get stuck in the now, and instead to view your assumptions through the lens of how things might be in the future. How might industry trends change or negate your assumptions? Finally, the idea of expanding time also means to literally expand the amount of time you allot for the process of challenging assumptions. We often make assumptions because it’s easier and quicker. For certain, challenging assumptions can be difficult and time consuming, but you have to do it – much is riding on getting it right.

Regard the past, yes, but don’t disregard what may have changed.

7. Ask why

Assumptions can quickly have gaping holes exposed when you simply ask why – “Why do you believe that assumption is true?” 2 The rationale or root cause behind the assumption might rapidly be revealed as weak at best.

8. Don’t let data numb you

From time to time I will say to my team, “Use data to go from ‘I think’ to ‘I know.’ But don’t let ‘I know’ get in the way of ‘I think.’ While data should certainly be used to inform our decisions, sometimes we rely on it at the expense of using our gut, or in lieu of challenging the assumptions behind the data. Keep a balance.

9. Double click on pain point assumptions

Not all assumptions are created equal. Identify the one or two most critical assumptions you make and spend extra time challenging them.


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Scott Mautz is an award winning inspirational key note speaker, course instructor, consultant, and 20+ year executive at Procter & Gamble (where he currently runs a 3 billion dollar business). He is also author of Make it Matter: How Managers Can Motivate by Creating Meaning, a book named to the “Best of 2015” list by Soundview Business Books. In Make It Matter, Scott shows that the key to winning back the disengaged (and keeping the engaged, engaged) is to foster meaning at work, that is, give work a greater sense of personal significance, and thus, make work matter. Scott has been a passionate student and practitioner of creating fully energized, fulfilling work environments rich with meaning that ultimately lead to sustained elevated performance and that transform organizational health & satisfaction scores along the way. In seminars and course instruction, and via his book, he has deployed dozens of time-tested and proven practical tools to help managers craft such a meaning-rich ecosystem. Scott was born in New York and has an undergraduate degree from Binghamton University (1991) and an MBA from Indiana University (1994). He lives in Cincinnati with his wife and daughter.

  • Joan van den Brink

    This is also true in group discussions when we assume we all attach the same meaning to commonly used words without testing and clarifying those assumptions.

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