Assumptions Are – Generally – Bad For Retail Business

Assumptions Are – Generally – Bad For Retail Business

When I enter into a new role inside a new company – one of the things I quickly assess is how many assumptions are being made in the business. Are people interpreting the same direction is extreme ways or strangely different ways? Do I hear a lot of team members during dialogs – cut the speaker off saying “I know” or finish the speakers thought as if they are certain of the conclusion but they’re off target? As retail leaders we all know that being able to communicate with clarity and bring structure to direction that is confused or slightly chaotic is a necessary competency. So it is critically valuable – when you hear “I know”, a lot, and identify that your team members are making assumptions that are creating business impediments or challenges – to teach and model active listening and thoughtful question asking to gain clarity to a direction, situation, or perspective.

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Human nature is to fill in gaps in our understanding with assumptions. Most assumptions are benign in nature. But many times we accept our assumption as fact. This is when things can get a little dodgy.

When we don’t know about people – we make assumptions instead of asking smart or clarifying questions. Sometimes, people are so protective of their reputation or they believe their professional pedigree insists that they can’t show vulnerability or they simply don’t want to appear that they lack knowledge in a specific area of the business  – so they make assumptions on the course of action to take without a clear understanding of the goals and objectives. Frequently [and unfortunately] – our assumptions are incorrect. The biggest challenge with assumptions is that when we make them and then share them – they turn into gossip and create complications for the business – like unnecessary conflict, hurt feelings, and disruption to the momentum of the business.

“My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask questions.” – Peter Drucker

5 Tips To Stop Making Careless Assumptions In Your Business

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  • Ask & Then Listen – Instead Of Assume: Instead of basing your decisions on what you think you know, ask questions to get more information and clarification. This is the sign of a truly self-aware person and employee.
  • Commit To Seeing Positive Intentions: As I mentioned before, assumptions can – very often – have negative implications in the workplace. And it is an unfortunate quality of human nature that we assume the worst. Trying seeing things from a positive point-of-view and with a benign purpose. Truly remarkable leaders understand that very rarely are people simply out to confuse or disrupt the your performance. They may have different objectives from yours but they usually come from a good place.  If you aren’t sure what someone’s intentions are, ask them.
  • Empower and Equip Your Team To Be Ruthless Fact Finders: If you want to avoid conflict or confusion, it’s important that everyone involved has a shared understanding of the situation.  This can be done through creating a collaborative, open, and transparent team environment centered around respectful communication. Once relevant and critical facts are discovered there should be a process to share the information with the team that needs the information.
  • Survey Your Own Emotions: This is radically important for retail leaders – Before you have a conversation with your employees, take inventory of the data and facts you’ve collected, and see how it’s shaping and informing how you feel. Having this emotional awareness as a leader is what makes others commit to you on a deep level. A quick rundown on what you’re seeing or hearing, and how you feel, can help your conversations be more successful. Maybe there is a bias you can spot beforehand, perhaps you’re being too soft or too hard when addressing a topic, and this conversation needs to be different.  No one can make you feel anything you don’t choose to, so before the conversation, take responsibility for your emotions.
  • Commit To Seeking Multiple Perspectives: In the retail workplace no one owns the absolute truth about a situation.  Everyone owns a piece of it. It is important to gather multiple, sometimes even competing perceptions of reality in order to truly understand what’s going on and to build a whole picture. Not only will this practice of asking questions for clarity make you more knowledgeable about the situation, but your colleagues will respect your desire to truly learn what their point-of-view is.

Good Assumptions Are Part of A Smart Leader’s Business Strategy

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Contrary to what I just wrote there are healthy moments in the workplace to introduce assumption and inference into your business strategy. As retail leaders, we all do it as we creatively seek to find ideas and strategize innovative ways to improve our business results and in finally taking action we take some calculated risks.

We make assumptions about the potential outcomes by concluding what the results will be when we can’t be entirely certain they will have the desired ending. Retail leaders also are aware they need to frequently use their intuition and “gut instinct” as a form of intelligence. We have to – we have a lot to process and accomplish during the day – we also need to be able to guide our teams to the most successful path they can take and by offering suggestions and guidance we are assuming that our thoughts and ideas will work out the way we hope to bring the team success. This type of assumption is part and parcel to an effective leadership strategy.

Truly remarkable leaders have a bias towards action – and what that means – is that we need to have confidence in our past experience and prior situational context to make the best decisions and provide the best direction and clearly communicate the path we are suggesting and supporting to our team.

Here is a simple system for approaching any problem or tough decision in your work life [this includes assumptions]:

  • Formulate Your Questions: Know what you’re looking for specifically. Break things down to their base level for a understanding of the ultimate objective;
  • Gather Your Information: Now that you know what’s relevant to your problem or decision, research it. Reach out to an expert, read up on the subject, or talk to people who have experience with the same subject matter who can provide experience and context;
  • Apply The Information Gathered: What concepts are at work? What assumptions exist? Is your interpretation of the information logically sound?
  • Consider The Short & Long-Term Implications: Look beyond the short-term and think about how your decision will shape things in the long-term. Something that will benefit you now may not benefit you in the future. What’s at stake? What can go possibly go wrong?
  • Again, Explore Other Points-Of-View: By understanding other perspectives, you learn more about the subject. You’re also given an opportunity to reflect on the information you have and how you feel. We have to be compelled by reason – even if the truth differs from our opinions or assumptions.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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