It’s Spring. The season when new life is celebrated, long-dormant plants start to blossom, and March Madness grabs hold of us like the intoxicating smell of daphne in bloom. Yes, my friends, it’s time to play. And like any well-meaning boss and reasonable citizen of society, I participated in the March Madness office pool and turned in my bracket even though I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Or did I? I don’t follow college basketball but team rankings were provided on my bracket, which I assumed were created by experts squirreled away in the depths of one of our most illustrious institutions of higher learning.

Based upon that expert information, filling in my bracket seemed fairly simple – just pick the higher-ranked team and work my way in from there. I mean, come on! #3 Duke playing #14 Mercer? Isn’t that called a “bye?” I used logic based upon the facts that were presented to me. I confidently stuck my $5 in the pot.

And then the games began and strange things happened. Inexplicably, brackets were busted. Teams from nowhere were showing up with ranking-upsetting outcomes in mind. Upset after glorious upset occurred. How could this happen? And what does this have to do with leadership? A lot, actually.

Too often, leaders assume black-and-white facts and figures – simplistic formulas – are the answer to all their questions. Alas, humans – the very people who comprise our teams – tend not to operate so predictably or simplistically. Just as we could ask ourselves what we should have known about Dayton or Mercer, we could and should ask similar probing questions about our own teams.

If I were to break it down into one tip that could have saved my $5 Tourney wager and may save your high-flying business plans this year, it would be this: Don’t assume anything!

We’ve all heard the ancient bromide: “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” While this saying may be irritatingly predictable, it’s simply true more often than not. When we close off the conversation with others and lock ourselves up in our own thoughts and ponder limited information, scary things happen. One being that we draw conclusions that couldn’t be farther from the truth!

To understand how our teams are doing, we need to ask probing questions, and ask them often. Gallup’s latest “State of the American Workplace” survey notes that companies with higher engagement can experience up to 147% higher earnings than their less-fortunate counterparts. Connecting with your team has tangible benefits.

What questions should we ask? Start with these:

  • What can I do as a manager to better support you?
  • Where do you see opportunities for efficiency and productivity gains?
  • What ideas, big or small, will improve communication among the team?

Next time you’re in a 1:1 or a meeting with your team, ask how they’re doing. And I mean how they’re REALLY doing. Ask how you’re doing as their leader. Ask if there’s anything you should be aware of or a way in which you can support them better. If you sense an undercurrent or you feel something isn’t being said, invite that in. Let there be silence when you pose the questions and make sure your team is doing most of the talking. If you’re mouth is moving a lot, you’re probably defending. Remember, this is not about stroking your ego. This is about getting to the ground truth so you can base your strategies on reality, not fantasy. Which reminds me, when does fantasy football start?