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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

Falling down the hole of assumptions


I love it when I catch myself making assumptions.


Recently I was thinking about succession planning for a volunteer position that I hold. I had thought of someone who would be good to succeed me, and I was getting ready to call her to see if she would be interested.


Just before I did, though, she sent an email to our group announcing that she was pregnant with twins.


My immediate reaction? Twins?! That’s a lot to handle. She’s not going to want to do it. Who else can I ask?


Then it hit me: there was something familiar about this situation: a story about an employee who isn’t invited on a business trip because she just had a baby, and the boss assumes she wouldn’t be able to take the time away. Out of thoughtfulness, the boss doesn’t ask her.


It’s a case study in bias—an illustration of ways that we make assumptions that end up denying opportunity to people unfairly.


A case study I had used in a workshop just a few weeks before.


And I fell into the same trap. Or I almost did.


Just because I think taking care of twin infants would be overwhelming doesn’t mean someone else does. Decisions about staffing should be based on objective criteria, not one person’s assumptions.


After sitting in the hole for a while, I decided to ask her anyway. I spelled out the responsibilities in an email, and even acknowledged that I had hesitated but realized she should have the chance to consider it for herself.


She wrote back in minutes, enthusiastic. “I would love to do it! I’m so flattered you think I’d be good.”


I was thrilled—both because she will be terrific in the role, and because I had caught myself making assumptions. Every time I do this—not infrequently—I view it as a growth opportunity. It reminds me that we can re-train our minds. Every mistake is a sign that that process is underway.


Maybe you’ve read Portia Nelson’s poem from 1977, called “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters”:


Chapter I

I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in.

I am lost ... I am helpless.

It isn't my fault.

It takes me forever to find a way out.


Chapter II

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don't see it.

I fall in again.

I can't believe I am in the same place.

But it isn't my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.


Chapter III

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in ... it's a habit.

My eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.


Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.


Chapter V

I walk down another street.


So many people are afraid of making mistakes, or beat themselves up after making one. I’ve learned to feel the opposite.


The more holes I fall into, the faster I can find new streets to walk down.


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