Get to the barricades – we need to start challenging & bringing down those assumptions!

“Assumptions are made and most are wrong” – Albert Einstein

I find myself spending more and more time thinking about assumptions and the role they play in how we think, how we behave and what we think of each other. In my work on leadership, teams and culture, I find myself spending more and more time coaching and provoking others to challenge their assumptions before we can really make any progress – assumptions about what good leadership looks like, assumptions about what constitutes a high performing team, and assumptions about what culture is (and isn’t).

Assumptions about leadership often start with a view that leaders need to be extroverts, outwardly communicating a lot, and generally knowing most of the answers to the questions they get asked. No, no and no, in my opinion.

When I ask managers and leaders to describe a high performing team – they typically come up with a wonderfully, idyllic picture, that doesn’t bear any resemblance to what I think makes a high performing team looks like based on the context of planet earth and the reality of working with human beings. Typically, they’ll describe a team that’s constantly motivated, positive and that gets along really well. Again, I start to challenge. Effective teams are edgy, dynamic, safe yet uncomfortable as there is a freedom to challenge openly each other and the status quo, and often a frustration that accompanies the expectation and determination to achieve a tough goal. As a coach once succinctly reminded a crew I was in that didn’t always get along: “The goal is performance, not harmony!” And that reality check hugely helped us to use our differences to win a few races.

Views about culture often start with mention of mission statements… At which my heart sinks. Surely we all know that culture does not begin and end with a mission statement (- NB: mission statements can make useful contributions, but they are just a small part of a much larger jigsaw puzzle which has so many other important pieces too.) None of the Olympic high performing teams I’ve ever seen had HR departments setting up large mission statement processes – though they did have teams, coaches, psychologists all collaborating to define their collective goals, and most importantly, how they wanted to live those out on a daily basis. And then, most critical of all, they held each other to account for them. 

Kate Richardson-Walsh, the inspirational England women’s hockey captain who led her team to Olympic Gold in Rio 2016, talks about the team’s clear charter of behaviours – it’s not about just winning, that’s for sure. And it’s not about simply using abstract terms, ‘respect’, ‘integrity’ and so on. Those are great terms, but they need to be brought alive. Kate talks about “stamping out fires early” – addressing issues when they arise, not letting them fester. And she talks about “not moaning about things outside the team that you haven’t first raised with the team and the leaders of the team”. These are concrete ways of working, which go way beyond abstract terms. 

Nor are these world-beating teams defining success in terms of pure outcomes – sure everyone wanted to win, but that wasn’t in our daily control. What makes you successful on a cold winter’s day, as far away as you can get from the Olympics in terms of weather, public interest and basic speed, is what you need to get right in order to deliver on those sunny race days when the crowds turn up and you go out to deliver your best performance.

Culture isn’t about what gets articulated – it’s about what we all experience (if we allow ourselves to process and reflect on that), the stuff we worry about, the stuff we notice and wish we could change but no one ever mentions so we don’t feel we can. It’s only by noticing the gap between what we intend and what actually happens that we can get curious about what’s really happening and start to shape ourselves and our teams in a different direction.

How can we get better at challenging our assumptions? This is something I am currently reflecting on. It’s not happening enough in the workplaces that I see, and it’s meaning that unhelpful practices continue in the workplace which are not helping individuals or teams move closer to their goals. There is sometimes a theoretical appreciation of how to lead or how to build teams – but assumptions quickly get in the way. I use some exercises to start the process of challenging assumptions in the room – but am researching what else can be done. It’s a habit we need to get into – it’s a question to ask at the beginning of meetings, half-way through projects, and as we review past work. For me, it’s about stimulating and facilitating a different conversation. It’s about using others in our teams to challenge how we see things. And it’s about our own mental rigour to challenge ourselves. 

Any other ideas? Please do send thoughts to me on LinkedIn, Twitter (@thecathbishop) or at

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