You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know…And that’s The problem

Early in my career I frequently made the assumption that people who were in leadership roles had both the experience to implement a clear strategy coupled with the skills to help others through difficult times.

While I’ve had the pleasure of working with some incredible people in leadership roles, I’ve also had (as we all have) the pain of working for people in positions of authority with limited experience who also spend time on details that just don’t matter.

I’ve found the easiest way for myself to build a culture of trust, especially when I’m in a leadership role, is to simply say, “I don’t know.” This approach provides me with the chance to learn about my teams’ experiences and where I can put them on projects where they’ll succeed. Equally as important it provides me the chance to broaden my perspective through learning, especially in areas where I believe I have the best answer.

How Can I Help?

When I see others in leadership roles struggling to find answers, I ask questions that allow them to hand over responsibilities in areas I can help.

The intention in this approach is to move forward without the perception that they’re giving up control. Note: In my experience those who feel the need to be in charge also have a more difficult time delegating responsibility to others.

Additionally, I’ll meet with those in positions of authority privately to share my understanding of more complex issues. When it’s clear they don’t know, I will attempt to sketch out two or three possible solutions ranging from low to high risk with respect to budget, time, resources, roadmaps, research, etc. This provides them a safe space to ask for help, without admitting they don’t know.

Unfortunately, I’ve also learned that over time that their behaviour doesn’t change. Teams end up chasing the same fundamental problems; giving up entirely and resolve to fixing whatever issues they can in the time provided.

Those in leadership roles didn’t learn from the many positive outcomes (both in people and product) and they end up reverting back to the same approach – leading by commanding. What I thought I had gained in trust and creating change was only viewed as “doing my job”.

Taking a Global Perspective

About ten years ago I put together several calls with peers in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia to discuss this recurring pattern. Perhaps it was just me. Was I creating the issue? Was I the only one seeing this pattern?

After several discussions I learned this was a common theme, globally. While specifics varied slightly with respect to communication styles, timelines, and industry we came to realize there wasn’t any hidden agenda or desire to hold power. They simply didn’t know that they didn’t know. How could they know what the didn’t know? I was getting dizzy from the circular logic. Later I learned the problem had science tied to this experience called the Dunning-Krugger effect.

The mistake most make, as I had done early in my career, is that employees tie an individuals’ title to their assumed experience and by extension their motivation to keep leading by learning.

Remember, skills and experience aren’t necessarily transferable! Continue asking questions and helping others where you can, no matter your title or where you sit in the hierarchy. You’ll be surprised about how much you didn’t know.

PROFESSOR AT OXFORD DAVID DUNNING HAS COMPLETED RESEARCH THAT PROVES IN ORDER TO KNOW HOW GOOD YOU ARE AT SOMETHING REQUIRES ALMOST EXACTLY THE SAME SKILLS AND APTITUDES TO ACTUALLY BE GOOD AT IT.

WHICH MEANS THAT IF YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY NO GOOD AT SOMETHING YOU LACK EXACTLY THE SKILS AND APTITUDES THAT YOU NEED TO KNOW THAT YOU’RE NO GOOD AT IT.

NOW THAT’S TREMENDOUSLY FUNNY, I THINK! THE WORSE YOU ARE, THE LESS CHANCE YOU HAVE OF KNOWING HOW GOOD YOU ARE AT SOMETHING.