worst assumption

With a remote team, you can’t just cast an eye over the office and see how things are going. We get visual (and sometimes verbal) cues that things are progressing nicely. Or not. But when you work apart from the members of your team you are running on a mix of trust and assumptions. Trust, of course, is good. Assumptions are necessary to function, but there’s one assumption in particular that you need to watch out for: The notion that everyone thinks what you think and works the way you work.

Assuming everyone thinks like we do is not only natural, it’s encouraged. We are taught from a young age the Golden Rule—“Do unto others the way you want them to do unto you,” or some variation on that theme. The idea itself isn’t bad. It’s the ethical core of nearly every major religion and spiritual practice. The problem is that if we follow it literally, there’s a chance you may be treating people in ways they don’t appreciate.

Here are some of the problems this assumption can cause, along with how to avoid the possible challenges:

Assuming the other person shares your work style.

Are you a detail person, who wants everything spelled out, and every possible contingency covered “just in case?” That might work well for you, but the person you’re working with may find themselves drowning in irrelevant data and feeling like you’re over-managing them. There are a few solutions to this challenge. One is to get a clear idea of their work style or preference so that you can extrapolate how well to work with them. You can use any number of tools, we recommend DISC but any tool that offers insight into how people like to work and communicate is useful. The second thing is to ask people what they prefer. How much detail do they need? How often will they want to check in?

Assuming the other person knows what you know.

As the leader, you have a lot of information the other person may not have. By the nature of your job you’ll have visibility to more of the big picture and the organization. In particular, you may understand the underlying reasons for a request—the WHY—that might not be clear to an employee. Additionally, you might have more experience with this particular task than the person to whom you assign it. While we want to assume competence and capability, it’s not fair to assign tasks without making sure the person has what they need to succeed. Ask open-ended questions to ensure understanding and confidence before moving on.

Assuming how you do things is the only “right” way.

One of the challenges in delegating tasks—whether the other person is in the same workplace or across the world—is people insist on doing things their way, and often it will be different than the way we might do it. It is important not to overreact when you see people tackling a problem in a way we don’t expect or don’t understand. It’s okay to ask, “why are you doing it this way?” as long as you are really requesting information and not passing judgement. Tone matters here, more than you think.

Assuming you both have the same definition of “done.”

If you don’t have clear agreement on what the final product looks like before work starts, you have a recipe for conflict. Take the time when you assign a task or role to make sure you agree on important metrics and dates. You might even uncover some of their assumptions you weren’t aware of.

Assuming that other people think like we do, know what we know, and share our goals is easy to do, and the results can have long-lasting repercussions. Check your assumptions as soon as you see something that you notice. It might just be a simple difference in approach, or something more important.

Checking your assumptions is one way to improve yourself as a remote teammate. 12 Weeks to Being a Great Remote Teammate is an intensive learning program that will transform the way you interact with your remote teammates.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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Wayne Turmel has been writing about how to develop communication and leadership skills for almost 26 years. He has taught and consulted at Fortune 500 companies and startups around the world. For the last 18 years, he’s focused on the growing need to communicate effectively in remote and virtual environments.

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