We’ve all gone through it – that awkward moment when you’ve made an innocent assumption about something or someone and realized you were wrong. Ever congratulate someone on their pregnancy, only to find out they’re not expecting? Ever comment how beautiful a daughter is to her father, only to realize they’re actually a couple? Making assumptions — and being wrong — is a natural human behavior, even if we’re often wrong.
Millions of people have watched the video of Korea expert professor Robert Kelly being adorably interrupted by his children during a live interview with the BBC. The video went viral quickly. Many parents and professionals who work from home empathized with the situation and thought it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. (I have certainly been interrupted by my kids or my dog while on video calls with clients or the media.)
Some people, however, watched the video and immediately drew different conclusions, like these from the video’s Facebook comments:
What was the dumb-assed mother doing all that time, sleeping????
Not funny Child abuse…He shoves the girl and his slave wife drags her along by her arm.
He should have hugged his kid instead of pushing her.
They assumed Kelly’s wife, Kim Jung-A, was his nanny, because she is Asian and Kelly is Caucasian. They assumed Kelly would fire her. And, they made judgments: Jung-A is abusive. Kelly is a bad father. As it turns out, none of this is true.
Making assumptions before having enough information can be harmless if it’s just comments on a viral video. But, in the business world, it can lead to prejudice, discrimination, and bias. As an executive coach and leadership educator, I have observed business leaders and entrepreneurs suffer the repercussions of making unchecked assumptions, which can include damaged relationships, ruined reputations, and lost opportunities.
So how do we stop this behavior before it becomes damaging? I boil it down to a simple three-step process I call DAB — describe, analyze, and bridge. Here’s how it works.
One of my clients is a multi-national company made up of American and Japanese employees working side by side. The clash of cultures often leads to many judgments: The Japanese are workaholics because they work very long hours. Americans are lazy because they go home at 5 pm. Americans constantly job-hop, so they are not loyal and can’t be trusted, while Japanese workers devote their entire lives to one company.
The first step of DAB involves describing something new and unfamiliar as it is, without attaching any judgments. For example, most Japanese employees work for the same company their entire life while the average American stays at a job for 4.4 years before moving on, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Next, we must ask “why.” Why do the Japanese tend to stay at one company? Because, as a culture, they value employer loyalty. Why do Americans job-hop? Not because they are disloyal, but because they approach their career paths differently. Asking “why” steers you away from making blanket judgments that are often negative and untrue.
Asking “why” helped the workers at this global company truly understand and appreciate one another’s differences, which led to more positive working relationships.
The final step in DAB involves drawing the right conclusion, acting appropriately, and bridging the differences.
Take the example of some common pitfalls of international hiring managers, Sometimes, U.S.-based managers assume candidates who speak English well are more capable and qualified than those who don’t. They also assume that if candidates don’t boast about their accomplishments during interviews, they just don’t have any.
In both cases, these assumptions often lead the managers to hire the wrong people. They miss out on the engineer who isn’t boastful but is skilled, or the salesperson who speaks imperfect English but has extensive local contacts.
If they’d asked “why,” they’d learn that in some cultures, particularly many Asian cultures, humility is an important value. Candidates don’t boast of their accomplishments because they believe their resumes and references speak for themselves. And speaking perfect English just means the candidate connects to the hiring manager — it doesn’t mean they’re great at their job.
To me, the most exciting part of the DAB process is the learning — asking questions, reading books, and traveling. Opening my mind has led me to better understanding, and yet, like most of us, I still don’t know what I don’t know.
There is an old Chinese saying: “Don’t be like a frog, living at the bottom of a well.” If we don’t open ourselves to understanding differences, we’re just like that frog, never knowing there is more to the world than the tiny sliver of light we can see.