15 assumptions leaders should reconsider

Assumptions are a fundamental part of the way people work and communicate. But as the world changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and new ways of thinking about work and society, assumptions should be acknowledged and, in some cases, changed.

“Assumptions are not bad or good. They’re important,” MIT Sloan senior lecturer said during a recent webinar hosted by MIT Sloan Management Review. “We just need to know they’re there. And we need to know when to use them, we need to know when to question them, and when to think differently about them.”

In the workplace, assumptions can be valuable as they align people along a common viewpoint and create a shared language and way of decision making, Westerman said. But they can also reinforce unconscious biases and force compliance, and cause people to reject innovation.

To start, leaders should reconsider the following assumptions about what customers want, how employees work, and how organizations can drive change and innovation.

5 assumptions about what customers want

1. Customers value the human touch. The pandemic accelerated “impersonal” services such as curbside pickups and telehealth appointments, and showed that some customers prefer the speed and ease of self-service. “The key point is that customers really want personal service, but they may not want it from a person,” said Westerman, who is also a principal research scientist for workforce learning at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab. If your business model depends on the human touch, ask if it’s actually better for customers, or is it just the way things have always been done?

2. In-person is better than digital. In some cases, the digital experience can be the same, or even better, than in-person. Digital offerings — like telehealth appointments or conferences that don’t require any travel — are often more convenient. “You want to figure out here what’s the right combination of digital and physical,” he said.

3. People won’t pay full price for a digital version of a product and service. Some people may have thought they’d never pay theater ticket prices for a movie they watch at home. But it’s nice to be able to pause a movie and watch in sweatpants. Convenience has value, Westerman said.

4. Pandemic-era service restrictions are only temporary. Suspending daily cleaning services and free breakfasts in hotels wasn’t a passing fad, Westerman said. Some conveniences aren’t missed, and companies are likely to reexamine them before resuming them.

5. The old way was the right way. “You should be asking why, all the time,” Westerman said.

5 assumptions about employees

6. If employees aren’t in the office, they’re not productive. The pandemic has shown that this is not true, Westerman said, though this might vary depending on the person or the job.

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