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Separate People From Their Ideas

That’s one of three keys to building a culture in which employees are unafraid to challenge management’s long-held assumptions.
COLLABORATORS Scott Berkun, Dan Schawbel
Build an assumption-checking culture
photo by Osman Kalkavan

We’re enormous fans of Scott Berkun (@berkun). Previously in this space, we’ve shared his tips for soliciting feedback and pitching ideas. Not long ago, a reader of his blog asked:

“Assumptions have an unnerving way of becoming facts and received wisdom over time. How do you build some functional assumption-checking into a project team, a process that generates useful feedback and moves the team effort forward?”

Berkun’s answer was rich with insight. Some highlights:

“The only real answer to questions of culture is you hire for it,” he writes. “Culture change is slow, much slower than technological change. This mystifies technocrats, as it should. People are much more challenging and powerful than machines will ever be.”

The emphasis on hiring seems simple, even obvious. Yet leaders tend to think, mistakenly, that they can simply instill culture through the power of their leadership. “One great weakness of managers is their arrogant faith in the omnipotence of management,” Berkun writes. “There is the belief, reinforced by management consultants and business books, that simply by decreeing ‘be innovative’ or ‘work smarter,’ magic forces that transcend the limits of sociology will transform conservative or stupid people into being otherwise on your behalf. [However,] the ability of a manager to achieve something depends heavily on whether the people on staff are even capable of doing that thing.”

Berkun directly answers his reader’s question by providing three tips:

1. Understand that some people are instinctively better at challenging assumptions than others.
“They ask more questions, have more doubts, and are willing to act on them,” he writes. “I don’t know why they are this way, but I know these people exist. If you want more assumption-checking, hire for it. These people are harder to manage since they naturally challenge authority, but if you want assumptions challenged that includes the assumption of hierarchy.”

2. Assess how you respond to having your assumptions challenged.
“If you continually demonstrate that you, the person in charge, are comfortable being challenged or yielding your idea to a superior one suggested by a colleague or subordinate, everyone who works for you will emulate that behavior. Alternatively, if you dismiss challenges or yell at people who challenge you, the culture of fear your behavior creates will dominate no matter who you hire or how great you proclaim it is to challenge assumptions.”

3. Separate people from their ideas.
“Healthy debate is easy if no one is taking the results personally. Most heated debates involve people who have trouble separating their opinions from their identity (the lack of ability to find any humor in a debate is a good sign that someone is taking the issue too seriously). If I draw what turns out to be a lame idea on a whiteboard, in a healthy culture it’s reinforced that the idea is lame but I’m not. I can still be smart and valuable. Perhaps my lame idea will help lead to a great one. This trust in coworkers is what allows ideas to be debated, attacked, torn down, twisted, reused, and improved without any fear of offending anyone. Most successful creative cultures in history were based on this separation. It’s another set of behaviors that leaders must demonstrate regularly.”

Want to read more? Click over to ScottBerkun.com to read his whole post.



The idea of hiring for cultural fit is not a new one, but it still raises questions about how managers should adapt job applicant–screening processes to achieve that goal. On Intuit’s QuickBase blog, Dan Schawbel (@DanSchawbel), managing partner of Millennial Branding, provides an example. “Glassdoor collected 285,000 common interview questions that hiring managers asked in 2012,” he writes. “The top four questions were: What’s your favorite movie? What’s your favorite website? What’s the last book you read for fun? and What makes you uncomfortable? As you can see, all of these relate to cultural fit and aren’t asking if the applicant can actually do the job and perform at a high level.”

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