I recently embarked on a coaching journey with a small business owner. Even though the current business was a success and provided a stable income, his entrepreneurial spirit urged him to start something new. Something different. Something exciting again after growing bored with the mundane routine of a fully operational business. wanting to systematically move into a different industry. He already started with the new goal.
His goal is a smooth transition without any financial impact. On the one hand, there is the slow phasing out of the current business. On the other, growing the new business venture without impacting his current service offering. Coaching would be something new for this established business owner.
During the first few sessions, we explored his vision. We attempted to get closer to what an ideal day would look like. One of the exercises we used was to draw his future self on a piece of paper, as pictures are the language he best understands.
He immediately drew an image of how he saw himself, without any time to think much about the details. I started exploring the details by asking probing questions, and suddenly the entire picture changed into something else. His subconscious mind told me he wanted something, while his logical, thinking mind told me something totally different.
There was a big, irreconcilable conflict between what he wanted for himself, and what he thought other people wanted from him.
Not knowing all the answers
Attempting to resolve the conflict, I explored different aspects of the vision, trying to reconcile the differences. Yet, each time he didn’t know the answer to a question, he would become angry, shutting down. Regardless of how many different perspectives or exercises we tried, sooner or later I would run into the same wall, stopping us from progressing.
It was clear that it made him very uncomfortable not knowing the answers. Being used to always knowing what to do next, suddenly he felt very vulnerable.
I recognized the deep-seated fear, common in many leaders, of being seen as inadequate. Suddenly, he was in unknown territory and far outside of his comfort zone.
The benefits of not knowing all the answers
This made me think of ways to convince him that it is not a weakness or something to be ashamed of not to know all the answers. Contrary, when you embrace this vulnerability, it makes you a much better leader.
In my nearly 20 years of work experience, I’ve never been involved in a project where everything was known upfront or happened according to plan. Actually, guaranteed at the start of the project you know least, making it very counter-intuitive to expect yourself to know everything. Yet, so many leaders believe that they have to know all the answers in order to maintain their authority.
But why is it so bad to not know all the answers?
What if the unknown and not knowing all the answers are what makes life exciting? What if it is the secret sauce to keep a team engaged and functioning? Does knowing all the answers opens up more possibilities and opportunities?
Here are five reasons why I believe not knowing all the answers is a good thing:
1. You Give Your Employees the Opportunity to Shine
Everyone loves feeling valued and recognized by their employer. One of the best ways to recognize your employees’ value is by giving them an opportunity to contribute or offer a possible solution to a problem.
There is nothing as satisfying as feeling competent and respected enough by your boss when she asks for your opinion. The two most charismatic leaders I’ve interacted with in my life were the two who asked for input and help from their team members and peers. It made me feel valued. It raised my motivation levels to do even more, and deliver even better results.
Allowing people to contribute gives them an opportunity to be rewarded for the value they add to the team. Not knowing what to do is an opportunity to ask your employees what they suggest. Use it.
2. It’s an Opportunity to Collaborate
In China, there is a saying that it is better to be liked than to be good. My initial response was disagreement. Then, however, after testing this concept on all the influential leaders I know, I realized the truth in it.
It doesn’t mean that technical skills are not important, merely that technical skills are much easier to learn than developing an amiable personality. Both are important, but as a leader, your job is to strengthen relationships and align vision rather than building the solution.
The single most important differentiator between a good and a great is relationships. A good leader might be well respected for their technical knowledge. A great leader, however, has strong relationships with her subordinates as well as her peers and customers. Strong relationships are what make the impossible possible. It is the difference between giving up and perseverance when the going gets tough. For more on the importance of communication and relationships, read my post called The Real Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.
Trying to know all the answers cuts you off from your team and breeds an us-versus-them environment. Not knowing all the answers, on the other hand, gives you an opportunity to collaborate with your team. This collaboration strengthens your relationships and helps the team align their efforts.
3. It Boosts Team Morale
A number of studies conducted between 1939 and 1947 attempted to find out what makes a change initiative successful. The study clearly proved that the level of participation was directly proportionate to the productivity and staff turnover after the change. When you involve people in any form of change or problem solving, they are much more motivated and engaged. When decisions made by top management are merely relayed, motivation and engagement go down.
Subsequently, more studies have been conducted, and it is now readily accepted that participation is key to success in business.
Not knowing the answers gives you the opportunity to involve the team in the problem-solving process. This increases their engagement and commitment, ultimately boosting team morale with a feeling of ownership and autonomy.
4. It’s an Opportunity to Learn
People have different motivators, but the one thing that makes everyone happy is a sense of mastery. Being presented with a skill not yet mastered gives you the potential to experience the feeling of mastery, which is an intrinsic motivator in itself. It also sets an example for the team you work with and helps build a culture of learning.
The outcome of learning, when applies, is always some form of improvement. Thus, when you don’t know the answer, finding a solution by learning something new means that you have improved productivity in some form or another, and increased your own motivation levels.
5. It Makes the World More Exciting
In Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s work on flow, he reveals how to reach a state of optimal experience. He depicts the state of flow – an area where you are fully engaged and focused – as an area between the feelings of boredom and anxiety.
We all can attest that when you know all the answers life gets boring pretty fast. It’s the questions that make life exciting and worth living. Learning is what we enjoy most, the state of curious searching for answers, not the knowledge of the answer.
We find the same concept of flow when playing slot machines. This is also the reason why they are so addictive. Slot machines use random number generators to determine the payout combination. The unpredictability of when the jackpot will pay out is what keeps us glued to the seat.
Once we master a game, we quickly get bored. Not knowing is what makes life exciting.
We’re not supposed to know all the answers to life, the universe, and everything. Great leaders are not the people who know all the answers, rather they are the ones who ask the most powerful questions.
So next time you feel inferior or inadequate when you don’t know the answer, rather think of all the opportunities that present themselves with this not knowing.
With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.