Full moon, half moon or total eclipse?

You’d be forgiven if you had assumed that the chocolate on the Jaffa Cake is the side which is the top.

McVitie’s assumed that we only eat Jaffa Cakes in three ways ‘Full moon, half moon, or total eclipse’ when in fact most people I talk to dissect it within a inch of its life and finish by eating the orange jelly. Ok, so eating Jaffa Cakes ‘wrong’ is no big deal in the grand scale of a pandemic, but just in case you’re wondering; I’ve got no plans to change.

Now I have got your attention and potentially left you craving some afternoon sugar and questioning your life choices, I have some serious points to make (although, I do take Jaffa Cakes very seriously).

Making assumptions is our human brain’s way of conserving energy

Every day we make assumptions, some are conscious, some aren’t. We make assumptions when we don’t fully understand a situation; it is our natural reaction to fill in any missing information by making up our own story informed by our past experiences of how the world works; many assumptions are learned behaviours. Applying the same pattern to save energy is the original AI.

Assumptions are also made when we THINK we know: motives, people’s skills abilities and competencies, the information on the table and how it’s been understood and that goals are aligned.

Eating a Jaffa Cake the wrong way round isn’t going to be a major issue to anybody, but some of our assumptions can be dangerous, even toxic. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’ explains how we all make assumptions, all of the time. Sometimes we get them right, he says, and sometimes we get them wrong. Don Miguel Ruiz in his book ‘The Four Agreements’ explains why:

We have the need to justify everything, to explain and understand everything, in order to feel safe. We have millions of questions that need answers because there are so many things that the reasoning mind cannot explain. It is not important if the answer is correct; just the answer itself makes us feel safe. This is why we make assumptions.

Gladwell gives a tragic (and extreme) example of what can happen when we get our assumptions wrong:

Late one night, in February 1999, Amadou Diallo was sitting outside his apartment block in New York City when four police officers drove past. Deciding he looked suspicious, they backed up their car for a second look. When Diallo didn’t run, they assumed he must be challenging them: “How brazen this man is,” they thought as they got out of their car and walked towards him. And when Diallo reached into his pocket they assumed he was reaching for a gun, opened fire, and killed him instantly. Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, had assumed the police were friendly. He was reaching for his wallet.

Assumptions can be important and useful; but if they aren’t conscious or managed, they may just well lead you down the wrong path, causing unnecessary stress, wasting time and energy, creating misunderstandings, causing you to miss opportunities to learn, creating obstacles that don’t exist, lowering confidence and giving a product/service/answer that is simply wrong.

In a time of intense change, we can be sure that some aspects are on the increase: 1) the pressure to make decisions in situations that are new to us 2) the likelihood that our assumptions will be based on the way the world used to work, not the way it works now 3) the size of the risks if our assumptions are wrong.

From assuming we know what our customers want, how our people want to work, where our people want to work, that our people are happy and well, that our way is the only way to assuming that the friend you haven’t spoken to in months is just simply too busy. How can we tackle some of our assumptions?

Bring your human to work.

Challenge 1: Mindset. I know the answer and I don’t need to change it.

Potential Consequences: ‘My way of the highway’ = broken relationships, ineffective solutions and repeated mistakes.

Solution: Communicate and ask questions in a non-judgmental way with the intention of discover the truth – stick to the facts and use a neutral tone. Assumptions left unexamined will restrict us or lead us in the wrong direction. We can’t read minds and not everybody sees the world the same way you do. Having a growth mindset means being open to learning and change. This could be applied to the situation when a manager assumes somebody’s weakness, instead of putting the effort into developing that person. In the short term, it’s easy to avoid managing around somebody’s weakness, in the long term, it will become a drain, for both the manager and the employee.

Challenge 2: Past Experiences. The more we experience, the more we may think we have all the answers.

Potential consequences: Taking a path well known, doesn’t mean you’ll end up at the right destination.

Solution: Accepting that no two problems are exactly the same. Use and value yours and others past experiences to inform a decision fit for this new environment by ensuring each person has the space to talk about the unique needs of this new situation. This ensures the decision-making process is slowed down and you truly find an answer which fits.

Challenge 3: Defensive behaviours. As humans we lack the ability to talk about subjects that matter deeply to us without getting into conflict. We are prone to psychological attachment and therefore experience our assumptions, beliefs, opinions and ideas as “truths”. When someone disagrees or challenges these “truths”, we feel attacked and forced to defend.

Potential Consequences: Chair throwing. The verbal or the physical kind = unsuccessful problem solving and damaged relationships.

Solution: Trust. Having a team around you where you can openly express your views. The dialogue is key to understanding assumptions and how the beliefs shape us, it takes our views from being unconscious to conscious, allowing the opportunity to form new truths. For this to be successful, we must share our views and ensure we are not judging or being judged; responding not reacting. If the discussion becomes heated, that’s fine, passion is good. The conversation should be a process of inquiry, discovery and exploration, not one of persuasion and argument (FYI – if actual chairs get thrown it’s gone too far).

Challenge 4: Expectations. What the end destination looks like and how you’ll get there.

Potential Consequences: Misalignment.An expectation is really just an assumption about the future.

Solution: Shared and agreed outcomes. Conflicts occur when your expectations differ from those of your colleagues; convert the bunch of expectations into a shared understanding of the facts to determine what the future should look like. You will need to: see other people’s perspectives, trust, stay focused on the shared facts, minimise criticism and ask questions.

Top Tips:

  1. Learn how to recognise you are making assumptions; spend a week really watching for when you’re assuming things, look for assumptions of all shapes and sizes.
  2. Ask questions of your assumptions: What facts do you have to prove the thought is or isn’t true? What is a more realistic way of seeing this? Is this really my own opinion? Is this what I think or what I want to think in the future? What would I feel if my assumption was wrong?
  3. Be open to not knowing and the concept that there may be multiple possibilities.
  4. Be mindful. The act of continuously drawing your attention to the present and how you are thinking and feeling right now, can over time train you to catch more of your thoughts, and thus your assumptions.
  5. Take your ‘worst-case scenario’ assumption and ask questions of it. Avoid the negativity spiral and find the reality.
  6. Nourish creativity – the more creative your mind the less it will play the game of filling in the blanks.
  7. Be patient; with yourself, and others. Our minds are brilliant, but also stubborn and habits become ingrained. Be nice and keep trying!

It would be very hypocritical of me to assume that what I have said above is all encompassing, or even right. What are your experiences and thoughts? and more importantly, what is the top of the Jaffa Cake and how do you eat it?

Socially distant but emotionally connected,

Stay safe,


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