Sometimes You Need to Admit You Don’t Know

Published June 12, 2020

Leading a team through change is nothing new.

But managers now have to do so in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, where they don’t just move through uncertainty, they live in uncertainty.

Executives must lead their teams in the dark equipped with strategies that look more like a slice of Swiss cheese than a precise battle plan.

Middle managers know that too many unknowns create unrest and anxiety amongst troops. When change is looming, it is too easy for managers to fall into the trap of waiting for new information to relay to their teams. They reason, “We’ll get more clarity after next month’s exec meeting.” Meanwhile, the memo they intended to route to the team just sits in their “drafts” folder. When managers go radio silent, employees not only fear the worst, but they begin to wonder if there is a leadership vacuum in the organization.

Rather than waiting for information or pretending you’ve got it figured out, let your employees know what you don’t know.

You see, in fast times, everyone is winging it—even the leaders at the top. Perhaps the bravest act of leadership is admitting what you don’t know.

I was working at Oracle (ORCL) during a time of rapid growth, massive change and upheaval in the industry. I was the head of learning for the company and was meeting with three of the top executives to review feedback from a recent strategy forum and leadership training session. The feedback wasn’t good: The participants felt the strategy just wasn’t clear. While I reviewed the feedback, the executives were unusually quiet. Assuming they didn’t understand the participants’ perspective, I reiterated the problem.

Jeff Henley, the CFO at this time (and my boss’s boss), became agitated and blurted out, “Liz, you don’t need to beat us up. We know we need to fix this. The problem is that we don’t know how to do it.”

He motioned to his two colleagues, both senior executives whom I held in great esteem, and explained matter-of-factly, “We’ve never run a $25 billion company before, so this is new to us.” The president and the CTO nodded in concurrence. I went slack jawed. Jeff continued, “If you could help us learn how to do this, that would be useful.”

So, I arranged for these executives to work with a renowned strategy guru and we re-architected the strategy, clarifying the core tenants (what was known) and laying out a set of questions (the unknowns). The senior executives then invited the managers below them to help find answers.

Through this process we built something more valuable than a strategic plan: We built real-time strategic agility and a deep belief that we could navigate complexity.

In a VUCA environment, it isn’t possible for us leaders to have all the answers. However, we do need to be asking the right questions.

Here are four tactics that can help you and your team navigate complexity and find answers:

  1. Identify what you do know. Clarify what is known and the core assumptions at play
  2. Make a “We Don’t Know” list. Make a list of things you don’t know but will need to better understand.
  3. State the questions. Define the questions and the data needed to answer those questions well.
  4. Engage your team. Start by sharing with your team what you know, and then admit what you don’t. Then let your team help you (and senior management) find answers. Nothing combats stress like putting people in charge of their own fate.

In times of flux, take charge—even if it just means boldly letting people know what you don’t know.

When you stop waiting for answers to trickle down, you’ll get new ideas bubbling up.

And, in a VUCA world, you’ll need all the intel you can get.

The original article was posted in Fortune. See the original article here.

About the Author
Liz Wiseman

Liz Wiseman

President; Best-selling author

The Wiseman Group

Liz Wiseman teaches leadership to executives and emerging leaders around the world. She is the president of The Wiseman Group, a leadership development firm, listed on the Thinkers50 ranking and named one of the top 10 leadership thinkers in the world. A contributor for Harvard Business Review and Fortune, her work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal and Fast Company. Wiseman is the author of three best-selling books, including her most recent, Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.

Years at GLS 2013, 2015