Thought Leadership Series
The Default to Assumptions and Answers: A Conversation with Liz Wiseman 
School Administrator, February 2021

Leaders who function as multipliers, says author Liz Wiseman, tend to bring out the intelligence and ability of others in their organization. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WISEMAN GROUP
The fourth installment in School Administrator’s Thought Leadership Series featuring prominent book authors captures the thinking of Liz Wiseman in a conversation with former superintendent Suzette Lovely.

Wiseman is a researcher and author of the New York Times bestseller Multipliers: How the Best Leadership Make Everyone Smarter, as well as The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools and Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work

As CEO of the Wiseman Group, Wiseman combines leadership training with cross-functional problem solving to serve as a catalyst for multiplier behavior across an organization. Recent clients include some of the world’s largest corporations, including Apple, Bank of America, Disney, Facebook and Google.

Lovely spent four years as superintendent in Carlsbad, Calif., and is the author of four books on education.

In her interview, Wiseman talks about building work teams that foster significant contributions even during challenging or ambiguous times. She offers poignant anecdotes about the downside of experience, tackling assumptions head on, recognizing diminisher tendencies and bringing out the genius in others. 

The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

SUZETTE LOVELY: I’d like to focus our conversation today on your findings and experiences around leadership and collective intelligence. The idea is to give our readers something to ponder relative to their own style, beliefs and expertise. Let’s start with your book Rookie Smarts. Can you talk about how experience can blind leaders, put us on the defensive and get in the way of the things we don’t know? 

LIZ WISEMAN: Sure. I think that the danger of experience is the very same thing as the advantage of experience — and that’s pattern recognition. When we’ve done something before, we recognize a pattern and when we recognize a pattern, we project, we extrapolate, we say, “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” and we tend to default to answers. We’ve all been in that place where someone is asking you a question and you go, “Oh, I have an answer to this question” and you provide an answer before they’ve even finished asking the question. It smells like something you know so you jump to those answers. 

That’s the danger on the surface. But even below that with experience, we default to certain pat or stump answers. We build up a set of assumptions about how the world works. And, at times like now where the world is working very differently than it’s worked in the past, it’s very easy for us to hold onto those old assumptions.
LOVELY:  So true. We could not have made assumptions about the magnitude of the public health crisis if we tried, right? 
Suzette Lovely applied the work of book author Liz Wiseman during her time as a superintendent in southern California. PHOTO © BY CHARLIE NEWMAN/SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE VIA ZUMA

WISEMAN:  Right. One of my friends said something like the world we’re living in wasn’t even a suitable plot for a sci-fi movie. But the good news about this public health crisis is it’s a chance to really shake down the reason why. 

As I said before, it’s dangerous to default to answers. But it’s more dangerous when we default to our existing assumptions because our assumptions live below the surface. We don’t even realize we’re doing it. It’s a lot harder to realize that you’re operating on an old set of assumptions about who’s in charge, about who’s setting the rules, about what parents want, what they don’t want, how easy or how hard something is. Pulling our assumptions up to the surface requires really active work. It’s an active choice of a leadership team. 

LOVELY:  What advice specific to superintendents or system leaders would you have around this active work or active choices? 

WISEMAN:  Well, I’ll share my favorite technique. I call it the assumptions audit. Every now and then it behooves a team or an individual to sit down and make a list of their assumptions.  Because we tend to jump to, “Well what should we do or what should we do differently?” It’s not an enormous investment to just stop and say, “OK, what are the assumptions that we have about situations like these?” And to pull out the flipchart paper or go to a whiteboard and just write down all our assumptions. 

For example, one assumption might be that people won’t be able to work productively from home. In fact, I think there’s a prevailing assumption going on in schools that says teachers are able to teach better from their classroom while projecting into an online world or a hybrid situation while students are at home. Well, that may not be true. 

But it’s not about deciding if it’s true or not, initially. It’s just getting all those assumptions people are operating from listed. Then, as a team, going through each one and asking, “Do we have evidence that proves this assumption still holds true?” And, if not, either cross it off the list or replace it with a more modern assumption. 

I think this is an extremely healthy thing for a team to do because collectively you’re refreshing all of the thinking behind your discussion. It also feels good. It’s like a molting process where we’re shedding skin and allowing new skin to grow. Maybe it’s something you do every six months. I know people who do this individually, like, “OK, what are the assumptions I’m operating under? Which of those may not be true?”  But I think it’s very powerful as a team. 

LOVELY:  I love that. You could certainly do this with all departments, right? Not just the teaching and learning side of the house but other departments like finance or facilities? 

WISEMAN:  I can’t think of a department where this wouldn’t be relevant. But I think we’re finding so many of our assumptions are wrong. I live in the San Francisco Bay area, and we’ve seen this exodus of professionals because of COVID. Before the pandemic, we were all operating from the assumption that people were flocking to the Bay area and were willing to pay higher prices or be house poor or house humble to live here and be where the action was. Now we’re seeing this mass exodus as people can work from home or are just leaving. 

So that’s an assumption that needs to be challenged. If you’re a company and you’re planning your talent strategy and you’re assuming people want to work in these hubs — that’s an assumption that needs to be prosecuted and refreshed. 

LOVELY:  As superintendents deal with increased challenges or ambiguity in running a school system, is there other advice you might have, aside from checking your assumptions and doing an assumption audit regularly?

There is an interesting quote from a book that I have reread maybe five or six times. I think the thing we all need to remember right now is that almost everyone is unsettled in some way. Parents are unsettled, teachers are unsettled, every constituent that a superintendent has is unsettled. There’s this outreach of community work that needs to happen because people are unsettled and also divided. There’s this huge range of responses. 

I want to share a quote from a book called This is Chance! written by Jon Mooallem. He wrote about the great Alaska earthquake in 1964. This 9.2 earthquake caused mass devastation and occurred during the Cold War era. At the time, there was a government-sponsored center that was looking at crisis management and what do we do in the event of catastrophic nuclear war. They had predicted that with the crisis would come unrest and mayhem. So a team of sociologists was dispatched to study this theory in Alaska. Let me read the quote from Mooallem’s book:

“Two founders of the disaster research center would theorize about why disasters seem to bring out the best in people. In ordinary life, we suffer alone. Any struggle, any pain, winds up isolating us from other people or making us resentful of everybody else who seems to somehow have it easier. But, in a disaster, an entire community suffers together. Trauma and even death — the stuff that we suppress in daily life — spills out as a public phenomenon for everyone to see. The present becomes all consuming. The past and the future fall away. And, all those who share in the experience are brought together in a very powerful, psychological sense. And then, something else happens.” 

I think this quote captures this idea about a chance to refresh our assumptions. It says, the instant disaster strikes, life becomes like molten metal and enters a state of flux from which it must reset upon a principle or creed or purpose. It is shaken, perhaps violently, out of rut and routine. What Jon Mooallem is really saying is that in a catastrophe, there’s an opportunity for transformation. 

LOVELY:  That’s good! What might superintendents take away from this?

WISEMAN:  There are two really important messages in here for superintendents and people dealing with this. One, this is a chance for public and community unity. Now, it doesn’t start there, and I’m sure there’s no superintendent who feels like they’re serving a unified community at the moment. But I do think it’s rife for a coming together. 

I think the second idea in that this crisis is so unprecedented, so all-consuming, so mind-bending in the size of the changes that are happening in our schools that it’s rife for transformation. In many ways, what I see in the private sector and in companies is they’re doing things that they’ve wanted to do for 10 years but have never had the need or the collective will to do as fast as they wanted to do them. I feel like this is a chance for the future of education to manifest itself a lot earlier. 

LOVELY:  That’s a good segue into my next question. A superintendent recently said to me, “My job satisfaction level right now is at a zero.” What are some of the signs that someone might be ready for a new or different challenge? And not just during a crisis, but in “normal” times. 

WISEMAN:  You know, there are a lot of signs that would feel negative to people like, “I’m bored” or “I resent my job” or “I just don’t feel energized” or, you know, “I have a harder time, I have to psych myself up to go to work.”

But, actually, the signs that I worry about are more of the stasis kinds of signs. Like, you’re just good at what you do. Your answers are quite defined. Things are running smoothly. My brain doesn’t have to work very hard. I don’t have to prepare for meetings. I can just show up and do my thing. I can shoot from the hip. And for a lot of people, these are signs that you’re being successful.

What I’ve noticed, and what my research has shown, is when we linger too long on a professional plateau, people start to make assumptions. They default answers. Their thinking is compromised. But there’s also an emotional response in that people begin to resent their jobs. I believe we are wired for challenge. Now, there is a healthy level of this, and my guess is most superintendents and their teams have been operating beyond a healthy level of challenge. 

My experience with my work on multipliers has shown for 10 years that managers have to give people stretch challenges. Give people jobs beyond their capability. Don’t be limited by experience. I’ve been issuing this “stretch people” message for a while. But what I’m also saying to leaders is sometimes you need to dial that back for people on your team. We reach a point of breaking. Make sure you assess the challenge level that people are dealing with. And be willing to let go of some of that. 

LOVELY:  So are you saying that superintendents shouldn’t go full throttle with the multiplier effect during topsy-turvy or challenging events?

WISEMAN:  Well, it’s to give people the right degree of challenge. And, as I’ve studied leadership behavior and what the best executives do, there are a couple of master skills. One is the art of asking great questions. That, for sure, is a meta and a master skill. 

The other meta-master skill for leaders is knowing how to size challenge right. Like the kind of challenge you take on across a district. Saying, here’s what I think we can handle. Getting that degree of difficulty right is a fundamental job of a leader and a leadership team. But it’s also getting that degree of difficulty right for each person who works for you. At times, I’ve said go ahead and ratchet up that degree of difficulty. But right now, most leaders need to think about ratcheting down that for people who are kind of at their crisis threshold. 

LOVELY:  In the book Multipliers, you also talk about people who experience tons of pressure but almost no stress. Where is that sweet spot for a leader in experiencing tons of pressure but almost no stress? 

WISEMAN:  Well, for me, the difference between an intense work environment and a tense work environment probably has something to do with the environment and politics and such. But it also has a lot to do with control. We feel pressure when we have a huge workload. 

Like, right now, I am writing a new book. I feel tremendous pressure. But it’s not really stress. When someone says, “Oh, Liz, is it really stressful?” I think, yeah, it’s stressful. Wait a minute. No, no. It’s not stressful. It’s a lot of pressure. I’ve signed a contract. I committed to a manuscript by a certain day. I’ve got 90,000 hopefully good words. That’s pressure. But it’s self-induced pressure. I think it proves true in so many cases that what causes stress is when we hold to things that are outside of our control. 

In times of uncertainty, we often look to leaders for answers. And there’s a lot of pressure on leaders to act like they know what they’re talking about and have answers. But the strongest leaders are quick to admit what they don’t know. “I don’t know this, I don’t know that.” And it’s not like, “Oh, I don’t know that. Let me get back to you tomorrow in e-mail with an answer.” It’s “no, we don’t have an answer for this right now.” So letting people know, here’s what we don’t know but have to figure out. Not only does this increase your authenticity as a leader, it establishes a collective learning agenda. 

Another good activity for leaders is to list what’s in our control and what’s out of our control. The things out of our control are inputs. But what’s in our control is our work, how we respond to it and how we communicate. I think just that simple activity that we often teach children to do as a resilience activity is a great thing to do as a leadership team. 

LOVELY: You’ve indicated those responses vary widely too among leaders. Can you talk a bit from the diminisher realm how a rescuer or an optimist or a pacesetter may be diminishing the work environment over a short or prolonged period of time? How might this play out not just during a crisis, but in everyday operations.

WISEMAN:  Absolutely. The core idea behind the Multipliers is that some leaders lead in the way that brings out the best in others and they use all the intelligence. There are also many leaders who are smart and capable themselves, but they end up diminishing the capability of their team. Meaning, they reduce the available know-how, intellect, ideas and creativity of a team. That’s kind of the fundamental idea. 

The twist on this idea is that a lot of diminishing is accidental. That’s what was so startling in my research. It was not just that multiplier leaders got two to three times more out of their people – three times more in education. In December 2019, we did a study of behavior in the workplace across all sorts of industries and we found that 60 percent of the diminishing behavior was what we would consider accidental, done with the very best of intentions.

Assuming that 60 percent of diminishing behavior is accidental, what we want to know is what are your accidental diminisher tendencies? Some people are rescuers. They don’t like to see people struggling, and so they help. And they help too early and too often. That’s not one of mine. I’m like an anti-rescuer. I actually had someone who was thinking about coming to work for me. She asked someone who worked for me for 10 years, “What’s it like to work for Liz?” And, he said, “Well Liz will stand back and let you fail.” I’m like, that’s what you said about me? After 10 years, that’s the nicest thing you said? I was miffed. But then I was really proud because I had worked hard to be able to do that - just like I’ve had to work hard to let my kids fail at things when I so want to avert that. 

For some, rescuing is their big accidental diminisher tendency. That is not one of mine. But one of mine is optimism. Like, hey, we can do this. Oh, we can get through this crisis. This can’t be that hard. We’ll figure this out. I often overlook that people are suffering and struggling with things. I guess it’s this tolerance I have for suffering, that I’m willing to watch people do it, and I often don’t even notice it. Because I like a challenge, I assume everyone else does. So I have to watch for this. I’ve learned to talk more about what’s hard, what might go wrong and to legitimize it. 

All of us need to understand our normal tendencies. Add a crisis to this and it’s going to exacerbate it and activate some accidental diminisher tendencies that we might not know of. Like, maybe we’re normally patient, but we feel like we’ve got to respond quickly, and so now we’ve got a rapid responder tendency going.

LOVELY:  If someone on a superintendent’s cabinet or a principal can’t turn the mirror inward and/or has performance issues, could this be caused by perpetual or accidental diminishing? 

Liz Wiseman makes a distinction between feeling pressure and feeling stress when organizational leaders bear a demanding workload amidst uncertainty. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WISEMAN GROUP
WISEMAN:  I find most people can spot their accidental diminisher tendencies, particularly if the discussion leader makes it safe. I would assume that professional educators know how to help people challenge their own assumptions, challenge their own leadership style and see the downside of their good intent. 

Assuming a good educator understands how to get people to think differently and make it safe for people to think about their own underbelly as a leader, my experience is that most people will see it. Not that they will always do something about it. But most will see it. 

Every now and then, I would say at best, it’s one in 10. But it might even be like one in 50 or one in a hundred. People just can’t see it. Maybe their self-esteem or worth isn’t in a place where they can see it and can’t do anything about it. Then you go down that path. You either have to remove that person from office or you have to have a story for the rest of the organization about why they’re allowed to continue to lead. 

LOVELY:  One more question about this notion of genius watching. How overt or subtle is it? Can you share more about how a leader can engage in genius watching? 

WISEMAN:  So genius watching is looking for the native or natural genius that people bring to their work. And it’s what our minds are built to do, what our minds can’t help but do. It’s what we do easily and freely. It’s what we do without training and prompting or even being paid to do it. It’s just, you know, what we do. 

The premise is that we all bring some form of native or natural genius and that we tend to do our best work when we’re utilizing that and that wise leaders look for this. They talk about it with people, and then they use it. It’s not like people have to have a job entirely built on their native genius. But I’d try to find a way to use everyone’s native genius in some percentage of their job. You try to get that as high or as close to 100 percent as you can. That’s the concept.
LOVELY: This has been an amazing conversation. Any final thoughts? 

WISEMAN: One more thing. Historically, I think we have looked at the job of leader as, essentially, a visionary leader. Like I have a vision for our district, for our school. Follow me. I see something and I want you to come with me to this place that I’m going to take us. That’s been a very traditional view of what a leader does. 

I don’t find this to be very helpful right now because we are leading in the dark. And I don’t mean dark times as much as without the lights on. We are leading when we can’t see 10 feet in front of us. In this environment, what you need is not the answers, you need the questions. You need to have built the trust for your team to go with you. It’s not to follow you to a known place. It’s saying, “I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re going to have to figure this out together.”

Right now, it helps to reframe that we are leading not just in times of uncertainty, but we are leading in the dark. What do you need to do as a leader to build the trust for people to go with you? The rapid learning is that instead of looking to you for answers, people are figuring it out together. That’s the job of a leader right now. 

Next in Line: 
School Administrator’s Thought Leadership Series resumes in April with an interview of Gary Hamel, co-author of Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them, with Mary Herrmann, a professor at University of Illinois at Champaign.