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The Power of Not Knowing

Jun 08, 2017

Claire sat in her team’s weekly meeting. She was being peppered with questions by her team about recent changes to one of the company’s key processes. 

“How fast are we expected to adapt to this change?”
“Do we need to write to our customers and let them know about the change?”
“Is there still scope for us to use our discretion?”
“What are we going to do about the extra workload this will create? Will we be compensated?”

At one point, Claire felt she was in that scene from The Matrix - you know the one, where Keanu Reeves is bending impossibly all over the place to avoid the bullets being fired at him. 

The only thing is, Claire didn’t feel like she was avoiding any of them. Rather, she tried to answer some questions as best she could, and when others came up that she didn’t know the answer to, she said, “Let me find that out for you, and come back to you.” But it never felt enough. Claire felt flustered, and like she had let her team down. She hoped none of them had noticed.

Later that night, debriefing her day over a glass of wine, Claire’s husband made a powerful observation: “It sounds as though you were trying to make everything Just Right. Is that your job? Is it even possible?”


As Claire had just found, there are 3 words that somehow become much harder to say when you’re in a leadership role: “I don’t know."

What is it about those words that can be so daunting?

As your experience grows, and you get promoted into more senior roles, I suppose it’s easy to assume that it’s your job to make sure problems get solved, questions get answered. That all eyes are on you, sitting there in the Big Chair. “I’d better have the answers they need,” you tell yourself.

And let’s face it, when you DO know, what a great rush it is to give people the answer they’re looking for. To fly in, superhero style, and blast all the problems out of the water. To leave everyone standing there thinking, wow, you’re so smart. My hero!

But consider the cost... 

1. You make yourself a bottleneck to decisions. People learn that they need to come to you for the answers. It’s easier for them - and getting the solution from you becomes a drug of dependency - for you and them. But now you stand in the way of too many decisions, too many resolutions.

2. You become a bottleneck to learning (and making mistakes). By solving all the problems, you are stealing away the opportunity for others to work it out for themselves - trading people’s development for convenience. (And let’s not forget your own learning here. After all, what if you are wrong?) You also risk creating a culture of knowing - in other words, where people feel they shouldn’t speak up unless they do know the answer. 

3. You suffocate the best ideas.  We look too quickly to solve the problem, to make things right, to triangulate in on an Action Plan too soon. But what if there’s a better idea just waiting to be discovered through a little conversation and listening without knowing? Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki reflected on how hard it is for experienced folks to keen an open mind, when he wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

4. But I reckon there’s a fourth and much bigger cost of being too quick to know. And it’s this: you stifle shared responsibility - which means you make it hard for your team to become leaders themselves. They don’t need to if they can look to you for the answers. Of course, that’s the way the "chain of command” model has operated for centuries - so it feels familiar. But these days, successful teams need to be able to cope with rapid change and uncertainty about what’s around the corner - without depending on a single point of leadership (you). We need our teams to be good at self-leadership.  

Make it your focus to help your team find and stand in leadership moments themselves — even if it feels uncomfortable at first. 

So back to Claire...

The following week, back in her team meeting, she recapped the key questions from the week before. Then, taking a moment to breathe, she did the courageous thing. She said: “I actually don’t know what the answer is to most of these. I mean, I’ve got a few ideas, but I don’t know what’s best. What do you think? What do you want to do?” 

An hour later, after a hesitant beginning, the team had come up the beginnings of their own plan - and one they felt good about.  

So grow new leaders.


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