If we think about what leader’s are losing sleep about lately, it is their inability to share, with confidence, a long-term plan for their organization. An inability to stand up in front of their team and confidently state, “I know what obstacles lie ahead and what we need to get navigate them.”One leader shared the following, “Our team did a great job of rallying for a few months and now it seems like their energy is waning and the uncertainty and fear is creeping in. How do I keep them focused when I can’t paint a clear picture of what life is going to look like in the next few months let alone the next few years?”
How do you rally a team around the uncertainty of what may be around the corner for your organization when you don’t have all the answers?
It’s kind of an interesting phenomena that has happened over the last few months. Leader’s whose normal style is to ‘not feel they need to know all’, have suddenly shifted to trying to have all the answers in order to reassure their teams during uncertain times.
Whether your organization is running smoothly, experiencing an unexpected boom or feels like it is navigating through a rocky narrow channel, your leadership can either calm the waters or contribute to the churn.
The Cost of ‘Knowing All’
There is a common misconception for many when they step into a leadership role that they suddenly have to know all the answers. After all, you were hired to lead others. You need to lead the way. You need to be the captain of your ship.
Many believe that exposing the ‘not knowing’ will make them look vulnerable and weak and therefore any ‘knowledge gap’ should be concealed at all costs. When your manager asks you a question about what is going on in your department, you want to look competent and professional by provide the ‘right answer’. You want to prove their decision was the right one when they hired or promoted you.
The unfortunate part of this misguided belief is that it leads to constant personal pressure to be on top of everything. To know everything that is going on. To hide the ‘not knowing’ and pretend you do know…perhaps even lie about it.
This kind of stress not only impacts you, it also impacts and can paralyze the team and sometimes the organization. A leader who models the importance of ‘knowing all’ can unwittingly create a team culture where people are afraid to ask questions and show their own ‘ignorance’ therefore isolating themselves, perhaps hiding things or lying, and for sure not utilizing the power of the team around them.
The Iceberg of Ignorance
The captain of a ship only sees the top of the iceberg…which is a very small percentage of the overall size. The bigger portion lies hidden beneath the water, and it is the lower portion that can sink a ship.
Japanese consultant Sidney Yoshida coined the term “The Iceberg of Ignorance” when conducting a study. According to Yoshida, 100% of an organization’s front-line problems are known by front-line employees. Most of us would agree that this makes sense!
However, Yoshida found that when he went up one level in management, to the front-line employees’ supervisors, those supervisors only knew 74% of the front-line problems. After all, people “manage up.” They want to look good in front of their boss.
Plus, some supervisors “don’t want to hear it.” And people are busy. They may not have time to tell their supervisors about every problem, large and small. So ... only 74% of the front-line problems are known by front-line supervisors.
Naturally, the pattern continues as you move up within the organization. By the time you get to middle management, according to Yoshida, those managers are aware of only 9% of an organization’s front-line problems.
And top management? They’re only aware of 4% — just the tip of the iceberg!
Not Knowing, Invites Others to Shine and Builds Trust
Yoshida proved that the higher you go in an organization, the less you actually know, therefore you can’t possibly have all the answers. For some this is terrifying…for others this is liberating!
I was watching an episode of Mega Ships the other day and was fascinated by the confidence in the Captain of stepping into her ‘not knowing’.
What the captain did know is where they were going and when they were supposed to arrive. What the captain did know is her own role on the ship and what was required of her to get that ship and crew safely to its destination. What the captain did know is that she had a team of experts in every area of her ship that were hired to ‘know’ their own job and contribute value in their own way. What the Captain also knew is that at every port there was another team of experts to guide the ship safely in and out.
The Captain gladly handed over her ship to the experts whenever she entered into a situation that she ‘did not know’. Had this Captain pretended to be the ‘all knowing’ expert in every situation… I’m pretty sure that ship would not have gotten far without running into serious trouble and perhaps ultimately sinking.
Every time you’re presented with something you don’t have the answer to, you are being given an opportunity to engage your team and collaborate on a solution. You are being given an opportunity to let others demonstrate their knowledge and skills and value. You are building others confidence in their skills and abilities and helping other grow, learn and contribute.
By demonstrating a high level of transparency in the ‘not knowing’, you give your team the message that ‘I trust you’. A team that feels trusted tends to demonstrate much higher levels of engagement and creative problem solving. Ultimately, you are giving your team the opportunity to shine and help you lead better.
You are still in charge of making the final decision, that is your job, as it is the job of the captain on a mega ship. By being confident in your ‘not knowing’ you are able to make that final decision with much more information than if you were to pretend you ‘knew all’ yourself.
Tips for Practicing ‘Not Knowing’
- First, look inside…why is it important to you that you ‘know all’? What’s the fear of not knowing? Do you fear people will think badly of you? Do you fear you will look stupid? What’s the worst thing that can happen if people find out you ‘don’t know’? Do some exploration on this. You are not trying to banish the fear, it is pretty deeply ingrained! You are just trying to bring it into awareness so when you get triggered with the ‘need to know fear’ you will recognize it for what it is and be able to respond differently.
- Practice saying, “I don’t know”…this may seem like a simple one…how easy does that phrase roll off your tongue!
- Even if you think you know, invite others’ perspectives…your perspective is only one, one multiplied by one is still one! Two multiplied by two is four, three multiplied by three is nine! Four multiplied by four…well you get the picture!
- Become an expert at asking questions…practice asking questions in different ways, rephrase them, think if new questions that dive deeper into a problem, ask the same question from different perspectives, try the six thinking hats method.
- Become an expert at listening…listen for things you don’t know, listen for things you don’t understand, listen for the real issue behind the complaint. Stephen Covey coined the term “seek first to understand, then be understood”…become an expert at listening to understand different perspectives and ideas.
- Cherish the people who disagree with you…when a client is sharing about someone that challenges them or they have a great deal of difficulty working with, my favorite question is, “What’s the gift in that person?” They see things differently, they have a different perspective, they challenge your assumptions, they are offering you a gift if you are able to step outside your own ego and really dive into the ‘not knowing’ with them.
Here’s some additional resources with some great tips:
I saw recently saw this quote, “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor!” What makes a skillful sailor is that they continue to learn and grow their skills with every voyage, and they have a team of skillful sailors standing beside them that they can rely on with their life!
As a leader you may believe that your ability to quickly and clearly share your ideas and solve problems has been one of the reasons you have been so successful. You can become an even more skillful leader by jumping into the ‘not knowing’.
By developing your questioning and listening skills you are building a culture of learning, development, and empowerment. This translates into finding better solutions that can bring speed, agility and potentially more ease to the business. This is especially true in times of growth and change and when navigating uncertain waters.
Invite your crew along for the ride! Invite your crew to stand beside you and contribute their ideas to make the team and the organization better. Invite your crew to help make you a better captain!
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