How assumptions make for bad agency working relationships


“Assumptions are the termites of relationships.” Henry Winkler (1945-present).

When I was a fresh faced Account Executive starting out in my first agency role, a very wise Creative Director offered me possibly the best piece of advice, which has seen me through many years of successful client working relationships. It was very simple – “assume nothing”. It rings true every single day and I’m going to tell you why.

This article explores how assumptions have a detrimental effect on communication and in turn your working relationships. It is for anyone working in or with a digital marketing agency, who wants to get the most out of their workplace relationships.

It discusses what assumptions are, why we make them, how easy it is and how this impacts on our communication and working relationships. Plus ways to better understand and avoid this behaviour, to help you get the most out of your digital marketing agency and ultimately your investment.

What are we talking about?

To really understand this topic it’s good to know what an assumption is, afterall I don’t want to assume you already know this! According to the Oxford Languages dictionary, an assumption is “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.” So straight away you can see the pitfalls and dangers… something is true or certain but without proof.

If they’re  so bad, why do we make them?

You’d think that based on its definition making assumptions would be something we would try to avoid and be really aware of. However, you’d be very wrong. According to Psychology Today, the average person can make up to 35,000 decisions every day and if you broke each one down a great many of those would be based on some sort of assumption. Why?  Well in very simple terms, assumptions are a way for our brains to save energy.

Subconsciously, our brains are constantly drawing on our past experiences, looking for similarities and patterns in our every day to help make sense of it. So when faced with a new situation we apply these patterns, or assumptions, in a way to shortcut analysing everything from scratch and using up valuable brain energy.

How does this impact my communication and working relationships?

Before we go too cerebral let’s bring it back into context. Assumptions are made when we think we know something. This can relate to all areas of our lives and many assumptions are necessary to get on with everyday living.

However, when it comes to workplace relationships, thinking you fully understand a situation and making assumptions on other people’s actions, words and motives can cause all kinds of conflict and seriously harm relationships due to the risk of being wrong. For example, you could make an unconscious assumption of someone’s ability or knowledge based on their age, gender, race etc. Or you could assume what information other people have been given, or their understanding of that information.

So you can see that if you make these guesses to fill in the gaps in a situation, they can have significant negative effects if you get them wrong. For example, you’re in the middle of a time-critical project and a sudden change of orders comes from the top during a team meeting. If you just assume everyone else in the meeting heard and understood those orders, you’re leaving yourself and the project wide open to potential conflict and a world of pain. In general, making assumptions closes off communication.

So what can I do to avoid them?

Part of human nature and the higher brain means we are all prone to making unconscious assumptions. But before you start tucking into fatty fish, broccoli and coffee to feed your brain and try to help avoid making too many assumptions, a simple way is to remember to step back and consider the situation. Question what’s going on, try to look at things from all angles and challenge your assumptions.

By communicating and asking questions you fill in the gaps. Check in with your team and your digital marketing agency colleagues to make sure they received and understood the information, even down to seemingly small details of dates and times things should happen. This may feel like micromanagement to begin with but believe me, it’s really worth doing. To make double sure you could follow up with an email to the team with a brief summary of actions and timings.

Also be aware of your use of language. Sometimes asking “do you understand?” can lead to a binary yes/no answer and further confusion. Instead, ask “what is your understanding of what’s needed?”. This might be overkill in simple situations but when it’s more complex it can really help people share their thoughts and interpretations, which can often lead to a richer understanding and outcome overall.

Ultimately the underlying theme is communication. Probably the most important thing when managing any relationship. If you keep your communication clear, consistent and open you shouldn’t go far wrong. When it comes to challenging your assumptions, the more you do it the easier it becomes and the more potential problems you will avoid, trust me.

How will this benefit my digital marketing agency working relationships?

When you assume nothing by keeping lines open and questioning the situation, you’ll find you’ll communicate more effectively and get in front of any potential pitfalls before they happen. This will result in day to day tasks, projects and bigger plans going more smoothly, with a happier team and less time being wasted, which ultimately will give you greater value for money and a more enjoyable experience overall.

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