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Own Up to What You Don't Know and Become More Effective

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Here's the nightmare scenario: You're in a meeting with another manager and several employees. An employee asks you to explain a potential product liability issue that came up the previous week. The other manager nods knowingly, but you have no clue. What do you say?

  1. "Ah, yes, good question...Is that my phone?"
  2. "I could tell you the answer, but I'd first like to hear what the team thinks."
  3. "I should be able to answer that question, but I don't understand it either. How can we get more information?"
Admitting that you don't have all the answers is risky, especially when people — your people — are watching. After all, you're the boss. You can't lose face in front of your staff. You're supposed to be the one in charge, the expert.

That may be what we all think, but it's one of the biggest myths about being effective at our jobs. It's also a great opportunity to create positive change in your organization.

Research on managers conducted by Discovery Learning, Inc. shows that most managers think it's a sign of weakness to show vulnerability. They don't see that their own feigned perfection fosters a work environment of pretense and anxiety. They wear a mask that hides the inadequacies they're so afraid of. They fear being exposed because everyone else appears to be so "together." While it seems like this is something that only affects that manager himself, it actually has a much broader impact on the organization. Employees working under these "perfect" managers feel that they have to fake competence where there is none, making them far more likely to hide mistakes and problems rather than address them.

When managers are taken out of their corporate environments to come to leadership development programs designed to expose their strengths and developmental needs, they typically experience anxiety followed by relief. The initial reaction is "I must be the only person here who really feels inadequate. Just look how confident these other managers appear." But as the process unfolds, often for the first time they can talk about specific problems, failures, and insecurities with other managers. Typically, they say they feel like a burden has been lifted from their shoulders — the burden of appearing 100% competent, hiding insecurities, and the isolation that accompanies both.

Once they remove the mask and honestly address their challenges, other people typically respond very positively. We see how accepting and helpful other managers can be. Suddenly that manager becomes a person who can be approached with a problem; he seems more real, more human, more vulnerable, and more trustworthy. They discover that competence is not having to know everything, but rather the capacity to work with others to solve problems in a way that builds trust, loyalty, and commitment.

This environment of openness and trust is especially important today when customers and the public are so aware of and sensitive to corporate ethics issues. Lack of personal honesty and straightforwardness from managers contributes to a corporate climate of dishonesty. In addition, a customer who feels that he can fully trust you and your staff will be loyal to you on a personal level, and won't be easily convinced that he'll be better off with your competition.

Realistic expectations, forthright employees, loyal customers — this is great stuff, but how do you get there?
  • Acknowledge when you don't know something,
  • Share your past mistakes and failures with others,
  • Carefully select confidants with whom you can share problems, and
  • Let others know the things that frighten or threaten you.
But the most important piece of the puzzle is to encourage your employees to follow your lead, and reward them when they do.

About the Author

Chris Musselwhite, MA, MSIE, Ed.D., is the author of Dangerous Opportunity: Making Change Work (Xlibris Corporation, 2004) and the CEO and founder of Discovery Learning, Inc., a leadership development products and consulting solutions provider ( He can be reached at

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Popular tags:

 leadership  environments  development programs  anxiety  clues  perfection  weaknesses  corporate ethics  liability  nightmares

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