Lose to Gain: Letting Go of Assumptions

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Every day I speak with wonderful leaders who, no matter how many years they’ve been a leader, tell me that one of the hardest things they have to do is to let go and not do or control everything and everyone themselves. They say it's a constant challenge and they find it hard. Really hard. But they force themselves to do it because they know that growth is about relinquishing control to gain control of other, more vital, things.  

And every day I speak with people who tell me about other leaders who don't even try to let go. They tell me of their deeply felt frustration that they're not trusted, not allowed to use their own intelligence, and that their talents are being wasted.

They tell me with sadness that morale is at rock bottom because this leader treats people like they're stupid.  They tell me of good colleagues and dear friends leaving the business and valued clients being let down, because of the bottlenecks this leader creates by wanting everything - even the smallest detail or change - to wait for their approval. They tell me of how stifled they feel in offering ideas because their ideas are never seen as good as the leader’s. They feel inferior. Discouraged. And they tell me they're puzzled that the leader often changes their mind when they've let go of something and then take it back or insist on changes that don't seem to make sense.

Mostly people tiptoe around these kinds of leaders. And when occasionally someone is brave enough to give that leader feedback, nothing changes, or it gets even worse. They just don't and won't let go.

Yet when these leaders talk to others outside the organisation – clients, competitors and investors – how do they describe their people?  They say that people are their greatest asset. That they’re proud of this wonderful bunch of motivated, talented, hardworking, skilled and passionate professionals, and that the organisation wouldn’t be where it is today without them.

If anything is destined to create a cynical workforce, this will do it every time: public statements that don’t match up with people’s felt experience of working for the organisation.  That’s a serious dissonance and one which will be felt both internally and externally.

Are you a leader that recognises yourself in here?

If so maybe what’s needed is to look at your assumptions.

These are a form of thinking habit that have developed over time, usually in response to life experiences – what we have heard, seen or felt. Even an isolated event can lead to the formation of an assumption, which becomes a generalised response to anything that re-triggers the experience of the event. Mostly we don’t even know we’ve got them – they just sit below the surface of awareness.

When they are positive and true they help us to make live full and productive lives e.g. “I can cope, I can learn”.  When they’re not true, for example, "I'm stupid",  or "they're stupid" they stop us from achieving or growing.   

As Nancy Kline, creator of the Thinking Environment® says: “Unexamined assumptions can limit thinking”.


 If you’re a leader that likes to have control, have a look at these. Do you recognise any of these untrue assumptions in your thinking?

 - assuming that you need to rescue people when they are struggling for ideas.

- assuming that you are the only one around here who really cares.

- assuming that there just isn’t time to let go because explaining takes too long.

- assuming that you will be seen as disinterested if you don’t want to know the detail.

- assuming that if you don't stay in overall control they will get it wrong and when they do it will be a total, utter unmitigated disaster, not just a little mistake.

- assuming that they can’t possibly “get it” because they don't think like you about the wider business.

- assuming that if everything that comes under your remit isn't perfect everyone will find out you're not a good manager or leader, but a fraud.

- assuming that they don't have your know how so what they come up with won’t be anything like as good as you would.  "They're good, but not that good." 

- assuming that if you’re not right that you’ll lose face when you get proved wrong.


If you do, you’re probably stuck on a bit of an "assumptions-control" treadmill.


Whilst everyone has assumptions (they're completely normal and are probably designed to reduce the need for us to re-learn the same little things again and again) untrue assumptions that limit us and stop us from growing or taking risks have a massive power over us. And even if they are partly true, for example, “explaining takes time”,  if they’re getting in the way of us achieving what we need to achieve, they need to be challenged and replaced with truer and more liberating ones. 


The biggest, most untrue assumption is that by taking total control you are in control!


Right now you may assume you are in control.  But you aren't.  It's an illusion. People will find their way round you. They’ll be making assumptions too – and if their default assumption is that you’re a blocker or a control freak they’ll challenge you passively by keeping you in the dark. They'll stop asking you what you want or what you think. They'll exclude you or circumvent you whenever they can get away with it, because they know you'll slow them down or deflate their enthusiasm or trample on their desire to do something really great. Or they will pretend go along with you for a quiet life but behind your back they'll do the opposite. You cannot force people to think what you want them to think.  


 And it gets worse

If you don’t challenge and let go of your own untrue and limiting assumptions about control you'll increase the likelihood of creating a negative cycle of learned helplessness that comes from discouraging people from thinking for themselves. Sadly, if that happens they might stop trying. Completely. When you tell people what to do you're effectively telling them not to think.


And then that bunch of motivated, talented, hardworking, skilled and passionate people could become demotivated, inept, workshy, unskilled and apathetic. And then you’ll actually have no choice. It REALLY will be only you that can solve every problem and make every decision. 


But isn't that unrealistic? You can't do your thinking and theirs; there just aren't enough hours in a day.  You'll die of exhaustion and they'll die of frustration or stagnation. They’ll lose all respect and you’ll have no allies. And they’ll spend more time moaning about you than they do investing their energy in delivering results or championing you and the business.


And you’ll find it hard to grow, personally or professionally, so you won't gain something better than you have now. 


Imagine instead how liberated you could be if you didn't have those untrue limiting assumptions!    


So what assumptions might you make as a leader that hold you back from letting go?  Which ones do you need to lose in order to gain?

© Linda Aspey 2016