Assumptions in the Time of COVID-19

What do you misunderstand when you assume?

Do you find yourself making more assumptions about others’ behaviors in this stressful time? Do you miss being in-person when you could check out body language and facial expressions to get a better sense of someone else’s reactions to your ideas? I participated in a webinar recently where a consultant specializing in helping leaders transform organizational cultures described one client’s executives who thought their employees weren’t engaged. Their fact-based data? Their observation that most of the junior employees who participated in Zoom meetings wouldn’t turn on their video. The executives thought they were using this “invisibility” to multi-task, text, or play video games. The consultant decided to test the assumption by contacting several of these employees for private conversations.

It turned out that the major reason for not turning on their video is that they were embarrassed by their surroundings compared to the lavish, bookshelf-lined home offices the executives had. In many cases, the junior employees’ home offices were at the cluttered kitchen table or their messy bedrooms in their parents’ homes where they had to move back in following the pandemic. In some cases, they have young children at home. While some of the videos on social media have been hysterical as we’ve seen toddlers commandeer Zoom meetings, they had real concerns about a potential negative impact on their careers.

What do you suppose this newfound knowledge enabled these senior leaders to think and to do?

How assumptions impact diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging

Did you know that the recently released 2021-2022 Baldrige Excellence Framework has expanded on the concept of diversity with a stronger focus on equity and inclusion? This includes additions to Areas to Address and related notes. We strongly supported this strengthened emphasis particularly now that this concept has received increased attention following the Black Lives Matter protests and clear health care disparities in stark evidence during this pandemic.

We all suffer from unconscious bias. Even the most conscientious researchers have to be wary of this phenomenon, which is one reason why double-blind experiments are required but not fool-proof. These are just a few examples and their impact on recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and retention.

As leaders, how do you know how inclusive your organization is? How do you assess it beyond monitoring your EEOC compliance metrics?

You’ll never know by making assumptions or following your unconscious biases. This calls for those difficult conversations, held one-on-one in an environment where trust and candor are promoted. I frequently ask senior leaders, “When was the last time someone told you something you didn’t want to hear? How did you respond?” If an example isn’t immediately forthcoming, then I know that the organizational culture doesn’t value transparency and senior leaders don’t “encourage frank, two-way communication.” (1.1b)

The high costs of assumptions

Fearful or disengaged employees are productivity sinks. Their presence gives you the impression that they are not only doing their jobs but contributing their intellectual capital to helping your organization improve and innovate. That requires a sense of “belonging,” which goes beyond equity and inclusion. It means self-identification with the organization and a commitment to its success as well as one’s own.

So, for your sake, the sake of your organization’s future, and your employees’ sake, don’t assume. Make time for those crucial conversations. What are some of the questions you’ll ask?


The Baldrige Foundation invites you to join the conversation! Submit your original research papers for publication in Volume 1, Number 2 of The Chronicle of Leadership and Management!

Check out the call for papers here:
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