Leaders need to exercise caution in regards to what they accept – or put out into the world – as fact. The problem is that often what people state as fact is something else altogether.
In a recent leadership workshop that I facilitated, the team started discussing the concept of objective truth backed up with data. One person made the point that there was “no other kind of truth.” To make a point, I said “It’s cold in here.” Thinking I was serious, someone else said “I don’t think so. I’m hot!” In a few seconds, we heard a half dozen opinions about the climate in the room that day.
So what was true? Did I feel cold? Was someone else uncomfortably warm? Was the temperature in the room, in fact, just right?
Possibly, all of the above. Each person spoke what was true for them. Yet no one was speaking objective truth with data to back it up.
These types of statements are called assessments. Often stated as facts, they are really opinions, beliefs, or assumptions. As such, they have validity to the speaker. But they become dangerous when we confuse them with real facts.
Here’s some examples of other assessments:
- This room is huge
- John is a poor performer
- Sally is very smart.
- Andre doesn’t care.
Assertions, on the other hand, can be proven true or false by someone who has the proper distinctions, meaning that there is some objective measure that can prove or disprove the statement. Let’s take a look at some new statements, ones that meet this criteria.
- This room is 20’ x 20’. This can be proven by someone with a long enough tape measure.
- The client expressed in the meeting his displeasure with John’s work on his account. Although it still doesn’t prove the quality of John’s performance, if one can establish that the client did or did not express their displeasure in the meeting, that is the proof or disproof of the statement.
- Sally finished both projects on time and under budget. If there was an established project timeline and budget, this can be proven or disproven.
- Andre was late three days last week. If there is an established criteria for “late” and a check-in procedure, again, this can be proven or disproven.
Note that an assertion does not have to be true. It simply has to be provable or disprovable. If, at the start of the discussion, I had said that the room was 70 degrees, the statement would have been an assertion whether it was true or not because someone with a thermometer could prove or disprove the statement.
Why does it matter?
There is nothing inherently wrong with making assessments. We have to do it every day. We check the weather and make an assessment about the likelihood of being uncomfortable if we go outside without our coat. We make assessments in order to decide what to eat, how to behave, and who to let our children play with.
What we don’t always realize is that assessments often say more about the speaker than they do about whatever the speaker is observing. If I make a statement that someone is short in height, I am making that assessment that speaks to my perspective (perhaps as a woman who is 5’9”) and beliefs. If I say that someone is 5’4” tall, that is an assertion about that person. And, in fact, someone else with different life experience and perspective might make the assessment that the person is tall.
Sometimes our assessments don’t serve us. Sometimes other people’s assessments don’t serve us either. Assertions are not subject to mood but assessments are and even our own assessments can change when our mood changes. It is not 72 degrees (an assertion) because we are in a good mood. But is it unlikely to be “a glorious day” (an assessment) when we are in bad mood.
Remember that the next time you are about to pronounce someone unreliable, outspoken, or absentminded or declare an opportunity impossible, foolhardy, or simple.
So go ahead and make assessments, but don’t confuse even your own assessments with the facts. Recognize that our assessments influence the future. Make sure that your assessments create the future you want.