What are your Tacit Underlying Assumptions?
The company I work for has engaged our 120-top leadership with an exercise that really fascinates me.
The exercise seemed so simple: Write out your tacit underlying assumptions
…….and then, figure out how those assumptions are messing with your individual and the organizational results we seek.
What is ‘tacit underlying assumption???’
Defined: Tacit underlying assumptions is when something is understood or implied without being said. It’s expressed without words or speech.
For example, it may be tacit that we stay working at the office as long as the boss does. It may be tacit that the boss always gets her way.
Another way to explain tacit underlying assumptions is to think of yourself as an iceberg. Some of an iceberg’s mass is above the waterline and a lot of its mass is below the waterline.
Tacit underlying assumptions are all those notions that are below the water line; not necessarily seen by others, but they are there.
The Titanic didn’t sink as a result of hitting the top of the iceberg, the mass below the water line sank the ship. It’s what’s below the surface that can be dangerous if we are not aware of it.
We have mental models and beliefs that are below “the waterline.” Others don’t see these items, but that are there! These models and beliefs create the actions and behaviors that others see. These actions and behaviors produce the results (good or bad) we get.
I’d suggest there are 3 levels to icebergs …….and us, for consideration. Level 1 of an iceberg is the mass above the waterline. You can see it. For us, level 1 is our behaviors, mental models and norms, that are visible and tangible to ourselves and others. Level 2 on an iceberg is the mass right at the waterline. For us, level 2 represents our personal values and attitudes which are less visible, but can be talked about. Level 3 on the iceberg is the mass below the waterline. For us, level 3 is our tacit underlying assumptions and beliefs which are subconscious, invisible to others and are rarely questioned.
Tacit underlying assumptions are unspoken. They are inferred, implied, hinted, suggested, unstated, unexpressed and unvoiced. The tacit assumptions are at an unconscious level, explicit, understood and taken for granted.
For example, Sue writes out her assumptions and discovers that she does NOT like being told what to do and given the chance, Sue believes people will leave “it” for the next guy. This messes with how Sue works with her direct reports. Unsaid……. these assumptions hinder team and organizational optimal performance.
How much of our work as well as our personal lives operate at an unexpressed and implied level?
This is a place where beliefs are subconscious, invisible to others, rarely questioned, and yet are the very root of how we think, what we say, and how we behave.
“What makes me react to certain situations the way I do? I don’t know, I’ve never taken time to think about it.”
I discovered I had a plethora of tacit underlying assumptions that drive my behavior in the workplace. Some cool……. some not so cool. I found, for example, that “I want to look good and avoid looking bad.” “It’s never good enough.” “I want quick fixes and think most people don’t deliver exceptional customer service. “
How much do these assumptions (things I think) drive what I do, how I interact with others and in the end, the outcomes I get?
When you combine a team’s, a department’s and eventually an organization's collective set of tacit underlying assumptions, you get the organizations way of being……. called Organizational Culture.
Any good scientist and/or process engineer……OK any organizational officer or employee (that’s you) would/should advocate for this process of taking some time to think about and write out your own tacit underlying assumptions.
It creates awareness.
And, with awareness comes choice.
Do my own underlying assumptions about looking bad, “it’s never being enough” or belief in the lack of others’ desire to deliver exceptional customer service, wisely serve me? My department? My people? My organization?
Uh, that would-be NO.
Try this idea on for size. “Culture cannot be changed directly – leaders change culture by revising their underlying assumptions and creating a supportive and challenging environment based on principles.” Matthew Chodkowski
Understanding what’s driving the output is at the core of making any system better. For example, why do I think others will chicken out if given the choice to deliver exceptional customer service? Because I think others don’t care unless they ‘own’ it. OK. Why do I think others can’t/won’t care unless they own it? Maybe because I don’t care enough if I don’t own it. Why? Because I think humans are built for novelty and excitement and not for discipline to follow through on things they don’t really care about. OK. Is that true? Can be, however I also believe that people start off wanting to do well. OK. So how could I fold a belief, that others begin wanting to do well with a system of caring to deliver exceptional customer service? Just thinking about it starts to unravel one assumption that’s unproductive (people don’t really want to deliver exceptional customer service) with another that is productive (people start off wanting to do well). OK. So maybe my tacit underlying assumption about people caring is simply flawed and if I find a way to involve others in the process, they can ‘own’ it and my unproductive assumption goes away? With awareness comes choice.
“The purest form of insanity is to leave everything as it is and at the same time hope that something changes.” Albert Einstein.
If we identify mis-alignments in the results we are currently getting compared to those we want, then we are wise to begin the exercise of looking at our tacit underlying assumptions.
This is the journey my company is on and it’s pretty cool. We think it’s the next lever……yes lever, not level….. (there are many levers) for us on our journey to preeminence!
The Problem: Each of us committing to take the time to think about what we think, and to write out our tacit underlying assumptions. It’s important, but not urgent. It’s an activity that is easy to do…but even easier not to do. It’s an activity that is super easy to pull the chicken switch on and not complete.
Why do it? The answer is simple: To get wiser. Most of us won’t argue with the idea of getting wiser…in all aspects of life.
The long answer is that as we take time to look at the way we see things; the way we see things changes; which yields wiser outcomes. We discover that our relationships with others, including how we respond to stress, tension, conflict etc. is a function of our tacit underlying assumptions.
When’s the last time YOU thought about what you think?
What happens when you discover that your assumptions are driving behavior you don’t like, when reactions from others are not getting you what you want, habits are not optimized?
Awareness, then choice. Wisdom. Opportunity. The chance for you, your team, your department, your division, your organization to win more…however you define winning.
The outcome is enlightening.
Challenge: Take some time to think about what you think. Don’t Pull the Chicken Switch and do it! Write out your tacit underlying assumptions. You write out yours and send them to me and I’ll send you mine. I came up with 72 of them.