Archives for posts with tag: Assumptions

Upside down house

Walking along Blackfriars Road in London the other day, I realised that there was something odd about the very ordinary building I was passing. I must have walked past it quite a few times before, perhaps thinking about something else, perhaps looking the other way, perhaps just being unobservant – but this was the first time I had noticed.

How often are we so conditioned by what we expect to see that, so long as it more or less conforms to the norm, that we build the oddities into our prevailing view rather than seeing things from a new perspective (curved window sills? A bit odd, maybe, but architects like to try out different ideas)? Change is difficult to implement, but the biggest problem is often getting started in the first place because people find it very hard to change the way they look at the issue, and so can’t see the need for a radical re-think. Another visual parallel is photographs of things like moon craters – do they go in or do they go out? Once you see it one way, it is hard to see it the other.

As a change agent, part of my job is to help people to see issues from a new perspective, and then to see that that new perspective leads to a new and better way of organising the response. If there is no new perspective, there is nothing to justify the change, and it is easy to see why people would choose to carry on as before.

If you still haven’t got it, look at – or just try looking at the picture upside-down!

A couple of weeks ago, I had an evening out at the opera. I’d never encountered this on previous visits, but throughout the performance, there was a lady at the side of the stage translating the sung words into sign language. At the time I thought it rather odd – why would deaf people come to the opera at all? In any case, the words were displayed in English text over the top of the stage. Was this accessibility gone mad?

That prompted me to do a little research, and to realise that there are many reasons why there might be deaf people in the audience: from the obvious-if-you-think-about-it possibility that they might be with partners who are not deaf, to the much more important fact that most deaf people have some hearing and may well enjoy music (and even if they have no hearing, may find musical enjoyment in feeling the vibrations), and the more profound realisation that for some deaf people the language spoken and written around them may be ‘foreign’ compared to sign language.

All too often, we make assumptions about how other people see things. In this case, the conflict between my assumptions and the evidence led me to investigate, and find out that my assumptions were wrong, but much of the time our assumptions go unchallenged, and so un-investigated. In change projects, this is a particular danger. People who are feeling threatened or alienated by a change may be unwilling to point out that wrong assumptions are being made, even if they are not assuming that “management must have thought of that – it’s not for me to say”.

Change managers must try to unearth conflicts like this by building relationships widely, and giving people at all levels encouragement to bring their concerns into the open. Change projects often fail, at least to some degree. I wonder how often that is because the manager did not realise, or bother to find out why, the assumptions were in conflict with the evidence.

“Self-delusion is the first step towards disaster”
Raghuram Rajan


How often have you found yourself having a conversation, and it gradually dawning on you that the person you are talking to thinks the conversation is about something quite different to what you thought? It happens to us all from time to time, and normally it causes at worst mild embarrassment as one of you says, ‘hang on a minute, I thought we were talking about  x’ and the other looks bemused. Sometimes though, miscommunication can cause real problems.

Perhaps the most common place for miscommunication to lead to problems in the working world is in emails. Maybe the relationship is a bit sticky already, or perhaps the subject is one which might be a bit emotive. You write an email, for example telling someone what you are going to do. Writing the message down gives you a chance to choose the words carefully so that they can’t be misinterpreted, right? Wrong! Within a few microseconds of pressing the ”send” button, you notice that your computer has started to smoke from the heat in the reply that has just clanged into your inbox. You read it – how could they have misunderstood your intentions so wildly? They must be spoiling for a fight! Your emotion finds its way into your reply, and the exchange just escalates.

Why are emails so fraught? First, they are too easy: we dash them off with little thought. For straightforward factual messages that is no problem. The trouble comes when the exchange has some (often unexpected) emotional content. Although they seem like a way of keeping the emotion out, and so appear to be an easy option (especially when we are worried about the reaction and it seems safer to keep our distance), humans are emotional creatures: we don’t often do purely rational. By leaving out the emotional context of the message, which we detect mostly from body language and tone of voice, we take away the very cues which would help the recipient to know whether we meant to be provocative or were just not choosing our words very well. Poorly-chosen words in the context of a friendly tone and an open expression will usually only prompt clarification, but without these, people usually assume the worst.

Here are five tips for minimising the risk, and getting things back on track if necessary:

  • If you think the message might have some emotional content, don’t rely on e-mail if you can possibly avoid it. Start the exchange face-to-face, or at least with a phone call, so that there is an emotional context. Only once the tone has been set should you follow it up with an email.
  • If you didn’t think the message was emotional, but the response appears to be – or even just indicates misunderstanding – never send an email reply. Pick up the phone straight away to clarify, or go and see them if you can.
  • If you have to send an email which you know might be misunderstood, save a draft overnight before sending it, and re-read it in the morning. You have a better chance then of seeing how someone else might mis-interpret your words, and stopping it before it is too late. I rarely find I change nothing the next day!
  • For really sensitive messages which you have to put in writing, ask someone else to check your words before you send them.
  • If an exchange has gone emotional, apologise face to face – even if you don’t think you have anything to apologise for.

Do you have any stories you can share of communications exchanges gone horribly wrong? Please share them below! Fill in the poll even if you have no stories to share!


Years ago, I was managing the sale of a business division. The business was based on carrying out a highly-specialised technical test on customers’ products, and each time a test was carried out, it made a loud bang. This would have been of no concern if it had not been that they were carried out in a large workshop also used for other activities. However, checks had been made and the noise levels were within legal limits.

Just before signing the deal, we happened to mention to the purchaser that we had some tests scheduled for the next day, and he said he’d like to send someone round to check the sound levels. It was a beautiful summer’s day – until their measurements showed that the bangs were over the limit. What a toe-curling moment!

In the end it was not as bad as it seemed: a sound-attenuating box solved the problem without making access too difficult, at quite modest cost and with only a few weeks’ delay. But the proving tests provided another surprise – the noise levels were legal again without the box. The reason – we now realised – was that the humidity of the air could affect its sound-transmitting properties.

Conclusion 1 – Make sure you know what factors can affect your assumptions.

Conclusion 2 – Don’t rely on conclusion 1! If something is critical, don’t rely on a modest safety margin – do what you can to increase it early, in case there is something you have not anticipated.

Have you had any experiences of what seemed like perfectly reasonable assumptions turning out to be wrong, with serious consequences? It would be great to hear about them – please leave a comment below!