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Wednesday Wisdom: What you believe to be real is not always real

A client posed a question to me recently: What are the most common leadership issues you face in business? This will be a series in which I will address many of the more common leadership issues and pitfalls that I have both personally encountered in the workforce, as well as those which I help my clients identify and work through.

The first one is making assumptions. I do believe that this is the root of so many of the leadership issues we deal with each and every day. I think this one also pours over into our personal lives as well. Instead of getting to know people and their strengths/opportunities, we simply assume what we think is true about them.

Let me share a quick story. I served our great country in the US Navy. The military uses different “lingo” than the civilian world. One of the terms that is used is “swabbing the deck.” For those of you who have not served in the Navy, this means mop the floor. So one day I had instructed one of my Sailors to swab the deck. Thinking that this was a relatively easy task, I gave the information and diverted my attention elsewhere. However, I caught out of the corner of my eye, that Sailor putting the mop into the water and then directly onto the floor, causing a minor flood.

HERE IS THE PROBLEM: I ASSUMED that the Sailor knew how to swab the deck.

One of my most incredible mentors taught me this: Always make sure your people understand the task at hand, have the proper tools to complete the task, understand how to use the tools, and have had the chance to ask questions.

If I had used this great advice in this situation this would never have happened.

Now the good thing is that obviously, nobody got hurt in this example. No expensive equipment was ruined. No inspection failed. The only failure was my leadership because of the assumptions I made.

This advice given to me does not just apply to the military. This is something you as a leader in any industry can use as well.

Making assumptions is not just a leadership failure when it comes to assigning tasks and assuming that people know how to do something. It also applies to making assumptions about someone’s ability or lack of ability, their level of passion, their education level, the training or experience they have or do not have and so many other things.

As a leader, making assumptions is essentially setting a person up for failure. It is important to find ways to clear up any assumptions you may have about a person or a situation.

One of the most effective solutions I have found is to ask questions. You have to ask the right questions though. You never want to come across as judgmental or condescending.

Never assume that someone knows how to do something. Ask, “Have you ever done this before?”

Never assume someone understands what you are asking of them. Ask, “Do you have any questions about this task?”

Never assume someone does not have experience or education. Ask them about what training/experience/education they have.

By seeking to understand people more clearly, you can eliminate your belief that something is true or untrue. Getting to know the people who work alongside you will help you to know where opportunities for training, chances to highlight a strength or an areas/things that may need some improvement.


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