Have you ever noticed? Anybody going slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster than you is a maniac” (George Carlin)

We all seem to have a natural tendency to assume the worst in others. When we are exposed to people who are not doing what they are supposed to be doing, it’s easy to exclaim: “What are they thinking? Are they crazy?” Left to our own thinking, we develop a simple, yet ugly, story that casts others as selfish or thoughtless. Jumping to conclusions like this in corporations usually results in nasty confrontations, with managers feeling morally superior to their colleagues or their employees who may have broken promises or commitments. These assumptions drive wedges between departments and affect the culture negatively.

All leaders who have managed to face similar situations well in the past know that a manager’s behaviour in the first few seconds of the interaction sets the tone for the conversation and feelings that follow. A leader has no more than a sentence or two to establish the climate. If a finger pointing tone or negative mood is set, it’s really hard to turn things around. If someone lets you down or behaves badly, as a leader, establishing the right climate is probably the last thing we’re thinking about. More often than not, we are caught up in the emotions of the situation and immersed in the details of what just happened.

Is it possible that everyday leaders with IQ’s hopefully higher than that of a housefly could be so hasty, judgmental and unfair? The answer is simply “yes”. Jumping to conclusions and making assumptions are not helpful – leaders need to be a lot more scientific and careful in coming to an understanding of what went wrong. Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler (Crucial Confrontations) note: Most of the time human beings employ what is known as a dispositional rather than a situational view of others. We argue that people act the way they do because of uncontrollable personality factors (their disposition) as opposed to doing what they do because of forces in the environment (the situation)”. In truth, people often enact behaviours they take no joy in because of social pressure, lack of plausible options or any of a variety of forces that have nothing to do with personal pleasure.

Getting to a place of truly understanding what went wrong implies consideration – as assumptions originate in your own mind, so consideration of other possibilities also lies in your mind. Patterson, et al, suggest: “Instead of asking ‘what’s the matter with that person?’, effective leaders ask ‘why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do that?'” so adopting a situational as well as a dispositional view of people. Admitting that a problem might stem from several different causes, changes a leader’s approach. The leader slows down and becomes curious, adopting a more even approach to problem-solving.

The first leadership step in holding employees accountable to commitments that have been made lies in dealing with the mind – not jumping to conclusions or making assumptions, particularly those that discredit the character of the human being, but rather pausing to take the time to consider all possible reasons that might have stimulated bad behaviour. This leadership evenness engenders respect and trust.

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