When We Assume: A Real Case Study In Workplace Trust and Betrayal, Part 1

Asking questions to better understand a person’s point of view is not as simple as it sounds. It requires the discipline of keeping an open mind. It’s our reflex to project thoughts and feelings onto another, resulting in statements like, “It must have been difficult”, or “I’ll bet you’re furious”. These are the sorts of thoughts and feelings we, ourselves, would have if we were in the position of the offended. Therefore, we assume we “know” what’s going on in the minds of others. Without a critical perspective, we create full stories in our minds that are merely perceived realities, leading invariably to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. We’ve all jumped to such erroneous conclusions, and we’ve paid the consequences.

A poignant example comes from a cherished colleague, Lizette. She and I discussed the details of the incident, and how she might better manage these types of occurrences in the future. Lizette’s honest and humble recounting should inspire a mindful motivation in all of us to ask questions instead of letting our amygdala intercept our sense of reason in the future. And, when we do slip (we’re human, after all), we can see the aftermath as an opportunity to strengthen a relationship, not further distance ourselves from the object of our assumptions.

The Mistake

Lizette is a financial advisor who shares her support staff with Richard, another financial advisor. Lizette witnessed a scene that took place between Richard and their star administrative assistant, David, during a meeting on the other side of a window. Lizette had just finished a conversation with David and assumed with a horrified jolt that David was speaking to Richard about her.

Confidentiality was a big part of David’s job, since Lizette’s comrade Richard was still her competition. Lizette could feel herself becoming upset. Her heartrate increased, her mouth dried up, and her cheeks became flushed. She decided to act fast by informing David that he had crossed a precious boundary. Lizette asked to see David in her office, where she reminded him that what he and she spoke about regarding her clients was confidential, and that he shouldn’t have shared details with anyone, including Richard.

Lizette was clear and succinct with David about why she was angry with him. When David became defensive, she was puzzled. She soon became horrified as he shared the details of what actually occurred in Richard’s office, which had nothing to do with Lizette after all! In fact, she hadn’t even crossed David’s mind during the meeting. Further still, David was now offended that Lizette had no trust in him, amounting to potentially irreversible damage.

The Assessment

Such an incident could, in theory, be leveraged to eventually re-strengthen their newly-strained relationship. The challenge is that cortisol and adrenaline, which were generated in an unhealthy concentration here, are sure to appear again in the future. These hormones were designed to keep us alert and quick to act in fight-or-flight situations. But what Lizette sensed as danger was not even remotely life-threatening, which would’ve held true even if her assumption about David had been accurate. Her thoughts were a runaway train as they morphed into agitation, anger, distrust, and a sense of betrayal, leading to aggressive and avoidable actions.

In addition to the unhealthy effects of those hormones pumping through both Lizette’s and David’s systems (including potential burnout), the foundation of trust became fogged, perhaps permanently. David will now question Lizette’s “safety factor” going forward (known as the “I” Factor in Maister’s Trust Equation.) Lizette’s self-orientation is also put into question. And sadly, it all could have been avoided if Lizette had simply asked a question instead of assuming.

Thankfully, not all is lost. As I alluded to earlier, Lizette has a chance to turn this misunderstanding into an opportunity, as do we all in similar situations. In my follow-up to this article, I’ll continue the Lizette/David case study to demonstrate how to cultivate a better sense of trust by building more common ground in the workplace.