The Cost of Making Assumptions


I am the former Vice President of my local school board. At each board retreat, our superintendent asked us one question to frame our mindset.

The one question was this:

“What legacy do you want to leave?

Each time, I gave the same answer:

“I want us to make decisions based on facts; not on emotion or opinion.”

Big Reality Check

You may know the story of The Stranger and the Ginger Nuts

If not, the story goes like this…

At the airport after a tiring business trip, a lady’s return flight was delayed. She went to the airport shop, bought a book, a coffee and a small packet containing five ginger nut biscuits. The airport was crowded and she found a seat in the lounge, next to a stranger.

After a few minutes’ reading she became absorbed in her book.

She took a biscuit from the packet and began to drink her coffee. To her great surprise, the stranger in the next seat calmly took one of the biscuits and ate it. Stunned, she couldn’t bring herself to say anything, or even to look at the stranger.

Nervously she continued reading. After a few minutes she slowly picked up and ate the third biscuit. Incredibly, the stranger took the fourth ginger nut and ate it. Then to the woman’s amazement, he picked up the packet and offered her the fifth and last biscuit.

This, being too much to tolerate, the lady angrily picked up her belongings, gave the stranger an indignant scowl and marched off to the boarding gate where her flight was now ready.

Flustered and enraged, she reached inside her bag for her boarding ticket. But rather, she found her unopened packet of ginger nuts.


Special Needs

As a school board member, my reason for wanting to leave a legacy of making decisions based on facts not assumptions is because of an early experience I had.

Case in point…

When I first got on the board, if a parent of a special needs child wanted to send their child to an out-of-district placement and we disagreed, we typically and quickly entered into litigation.

I added up our legal fees for this practice (about $100,000/year for several years) and heard from a dozen families who had been in conflict with our district.

Most families said the reason they asked to send their child to an out-of-district placement was because they had lost faith in us.

We did a comprehensive survey of staff, parents, and students and found that trust and communication between families and special education staff needed to be improved.

The previous board assumed that parents of special education students were asking for out-of-district placements because they were “greedy” or “angry at the world.”

These assumptions created a lack of trust and communication, cost taxpayers money, and were not in keeping with our mission of putting learning first.

Finding Solutions

Once we uncovered the root causes for parents asking for out of district placements, we developed strategies to create more open exchange and collaboration between our special education department and parents.

In my three years on the board, we reduced our special education costs by over three-quarters of a million dollars ($784,169 to be exact), even though salaries and private school tuition increased.

In addition to saving taxpayer dollars and repairing relationships, our special education students benefitted from improved trust and communication between parents and staff.

Just the Facts

Making decisions based on facts is not easy to do. We all have assumptions and opinions we carry with us every day. A quote I love about assumptions is from the actor, Alan Alda:

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

What do you think?


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Judith Lindenberger
 is the President of The Lindenberger Group

She helps clients with Human Resources Consulting, Training and Coaching
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web | Blog | 609.730.1049

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2 responses to “The Cost of Making Assumptions

  1. It is difficult to make decisions based on facts, but it is a very important thing to consider when making decisions. Being impartial in conflict resolution and being neutral in problem solving can help leaders accel in areas that they need to.


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