On (Not) Knowing

Most of us like to:

  • Know.
  • Have it all worked out.
  • Be “on top of things.”
  • Feel in control.

Conversely, we don’t like to:

  • Not know.
  • Be out of our depth.
  • Look clueless or incompetent.
  • Feel vulnerable.

There are intense internal and external pressures on leaders to be “strong,” “powerful,” “confident,” and “have all the answers.” Highly accomplished people are used to excelling at everything, from school to career. They are accustomed to receiving praise for “getting it right.” Not knowing is risky territory and can feel overwhelming or disempowering.

The reality is that none of us knows as much as we all think we do. Yet we put huge expectations on leaders to have the answers. More than one senior executive has shared with us how much they didn’t know about where their company was going—yet felt they could not share this with their management team or board. At best, they feared being seen as incompetent; at worst, losing their job. Successful businesses are full of people who are excellent at knowing. And when they become managers and leaders, they feel even more compelled and pressured to know everything.

Having a strategy, conducting complex analyses, and knowing how to devise and implement plans are linked to effective leadership. But have you ever considered that in some situations NOT knowing can be incredibly useful, or that there are times when knowledge can get in the way? The complicated challenges we face in business need to be solved by novel thinking and behavior. Reliance on what has worked in the past may limit us when the rules of the game constantly change. Industries are being disrupted and transformed by organizations that were not in existence even a few years ago (think Uber or Airbnb).

A leader who embraces uncertainty, honors doubt, and shows vulnerability can increase the potential of her organization (team, staff) to be effective learners, to model cooperation, and to communicate better with each other and customers. Admitting that we don’t know, paradoxically, can help us to know in a more valuable way—by allowing us to develop more collaborative relationships, gather insights from others, listen better, and observe more keenly what is going on around us. The process by which we arrive at knowledge is often just as important as the knowledge itself, but it can be difficult to gain perspective when you are in the thick of the action and feel the need to control it. Learning when to pull back and ask questions or observe—as opposed to jumping in with “the answer” and acting—is a crucial leadership strategy seldom tapped to its full potential.

It’s disturbing to move from a familiar place of power, in which you (thought you) knew everything, and then to realize suddenly that all the street signs are written in a foreign language. One of the biggest mistakes we see new leaders make is pretending to know (when they don’t) or relying on things they knew to be true in their last company or position which may not be “the answer” in a new organization or team. Effective leaders balance knowing and not knowing as they take on greater roles and responsibilities. Leaders who learn to recognize the traps associated with how much they (think they) know can discover that leaning into their own not-knowing allows them maintain their credibility and increase their leadership effectiveness.

Four Dangers for All-Knowing Leaders:

  1. Lost credibility. Blown smoke becomes obvious with time, and the more smoke you blow, the less credible you become.
  2. Diminished influence. Your words have less weight when you only pretend to know—especially when people figure that out.
  3. Persistent ignorance and blind spots. If you pretend to know, you begin to believe you know, even when you don’t. And that can get you into real trouble.
  4. Missed opportunities. If you aren’t occasionally challenging your own assumptions you’ll stagnate. Organizations and leaders get stuck when they run from confusion.

Seven Ways To Not Know Like a Leader:

  1. Assume you don’t know. The illusion of knowledge can lead to errors, and experience limits outlook to a particular way of how things “should be done” when better solutions may exist. One of the most powerful shifts a leader can make is to operate from a place of inquiry rather than a place of knowing. Most people don't need you to tell them what to do (that’s micromanagement), they need you to ask an intelligent question. Tell less and ask more.
  2. Instead of dispensing knowledge, discover the genius in others. Say, “I hadn’t thought of that. Tell me more.” Encourage knowledge from unexpected places, and be comfortable not being “the smartest person in the room.”
  3. If you believe the situation is not right for open disagreement, seek clarity in private. Invite experts, naysayers, and resisters into your office and pick their brains. Foster dialogue that will lead to new insights and perspectives. (Note: Question your own assumptions about the number of situations where open disagreement is not appropriate!)
  4. Keep notes during meetings. Writing is thinking. Record and ask questions from your notes. Follow up and build on them.
  5. Be suggestive rather than instructive. Say what you (think you) know, but follow it with “What am I missing?” Replace phrases such as “certainly” and “undoubtedly” with “perhaps,” “I think,” or “here’s my intuition right now.” Be patient and curious, and never forget that your position or reputation may prevent others from telling you things you’re missing. (Remember the Emperor and his new clothes.)
  6. Keep a running list of things you’d like to know but don’t. Make time to explore these areas by reading, researching, or talking with others—especially others with different backgrounds or experiences. When we stop learning we stop growing.
  7. Create environments where not knowing is expected and valued. Begin meetings by asking, “What are we trying to learn?” or “Where might some of our assumptions be incorrect?” Honor people who do ask questions when they don’t know. You get what you honor as a leader, and in doing this you’ll model the way for a culture that is comfortable NOT knowing, and therefore learning and growing.

What’s dangerous about pretending to know? How can leaders NOT know in leader-like ways? When and how would it benefit you or your team for you NOT to know? Is it acceptable to embrace “I don’t know” in your workplace? We’d love to hear some of your reactions and experiences: newsletter@nevinsconsulting.com

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes