The Most Effective Leaders Embrace the Power of Not Knowing

I’ve spent the better part of the last 15 years working with teams that have been challenged to solve hard problems. These teams have included state, local and national level government leaders, managers and team members. They have included chief scientists and technical teams. They’ve included military, police, and intelligence officers. And they’ve included executive teams from leading private companies. Even as the problems have varied across sectors, industries, and organizations, one thing has been apparent — leadership is hard and we leaders often make it harder.

Most leaders are well-intentioned. They work tirelessly to build strong teams, solve hard problems, and deliver results. They work to create clear a clear mission and set of values to align their teams and they activate those promises in ways that reinforce positive aspects of their culture. They read constantly and collaborate on new ideas that come from those dynamic studies. And because we’re living in an age of near-instantaneous access to information and feedback, they also strive to answer the countless questions that come at them every day, ranging from inquiries about new technologies to customer feedback to ideas about their organizational strategy.

It’s in the effort to satisfy the urge to answer hard questions immediately that they fall short. And it’s for one simple reason: they don’t have all the answers.

The Power of Saying ‘I Don’t Know’

Quickly giving a confident and direct answer to a question from a teammate or subordinate is satisfying. It’s instantly gratifying to feel like we’ve solved a challenge, kept things moving, and taken ownership. But there are downsides to that immediate answer. If you are always quick to solve problems for others, you aren’t enabling your teams to learn how to solve them. You aren’t allowing space for new ideas, and you aren’t allowing leaders at all levels to take ownership. In short, you’re sucking the oxygen out of the fire that forges a culture of creativity and intelligence necessary for taking on hard challenges.

The process of changing this approach starts with a simple response. Next time you’re given an inquiry, respond with, “I don’t know, what do you think?” In doing so, you’re helping your organization and the individuals in it to become more effective and you’re creating four other vital benefits.

Show That It’s Okay to Not Know Everything

It is unrealistic to expect anyone to know the answer to anything. We all understand that in our daily lives. Yet, when questions are posed in work settings, many leaders feel compelled to have immediate answers. When leaders answer too quickly, subordinates get an unrealistic example of good leadership. There also is a good chance the immediate answer is wrong — some of the team members will know and that undermines leadership. Finally, a firm answer closes the door to the goodness that comes from discussing challenges, both in terms of solution quality and team alignment. Pausing and asking what others think sents the example that leadership means knowing what you know, and what you don’t know.

Create Space for Ideation

A leader who answers every question can (even unintentionally) shift their team into constant execution mode, killing new ideas before they can emerge. Pausing to open space for potential solutions and to explore ideas provides people at every level the ability to assess multiple courses of action. The team can assess existing and new approaches using attributes like cost, feasibility, impact, and schedule to prioritize and initiate the best approach (not just the one that’s familiar). Expanding the decision-making organization teaches teammates how priorities and decisions are made. The process also often results in broader buy-in because people feel ownership as a result of this more collaborative approach.

Share Ownership of Outcomes

The collaborative solution building and buy-in generated serves two purposes. It helps to reinforce the positive aspects of the organizational culture (e.g., collaboration, innovation, empowerment). It also provides the opportunity for teammates to invest more in the process of creating solutions and outcomes. That investment spreads responsibility throughout the organization, establishing new formal and informal leaders, and increasing the likelihood of lasting positive outcomes. This diffusion is of great benefit to the team members because they feel more in control of their future. It also helps the executive leadership, which can share the pursuit and outcomes of success.

Prioritize Your Time on High Impact Items

The ability for leaders to diffuse solution-seeking allows them to reprioritize time toward higher-impact and higher-value issues. This is not an allowance to push work off onto teammates; rather, it is a call to entrust our team members and peer leaders to do their jobs and grow. Focusing on driving priorities also keeps the leader’s focus where it should be — on being the visionary, strategist, and guide for the organization.

Reinforcing the ability of your team to solve problems and implement solutions will make you a more effective and more respected leader. You’ll be able to focus on strategic and long-term impacts. And you’ll be modeling the incredible power of opening yourself up to knowledge and insight through a simple admission of not knowing every answer.

We don’t know everything. We don’t need to. We shouldn’t even strive to know everything.  The answers are out there if we are open to hearing them. Are you setting that example for your team?

Tyler Sweatt is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is the founder and Managing Partner at Future Tense. Tyler works to identify and address risks and opportunities in changing environments. He advises startups across the cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and physical security domains, and regularly supports R&D, S&T, M&A and strategy initiatives across DHS, DoD, the IC and Fortune 500 organizations. Previously, Tyler worked at futurist consulting firm Toffler Associates, leading emerging technology and security efforts, and worked at Deloitte where he focused on rapid technology acquisition for DoD. A West Point graduate, Tyler served as a Combat Engineer and Counterintelligence Officer with the Army, serving multiple combat deployments. You can find him on Twitter @Tyler_Sweatt.

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Profile Photo Catherine Andrews

Asking “I don’t know, what do you think?” is also one of my favorite tactics to use with my reports and employees. The biggest bonus — often they have a way smarter answer or opinion than I ever would have had!