If You Do Know, Then Say So
I’ve talked about situations where leaders and managers struggle to say “I don’t know” because of their fear of seeming incompetent or not being “in the know”. It’s an approach that rarely works and, more often than not, breeds frustration and angst, because it goes against the reality that real leaders are human, open and willing to be vulnerable.
On the flip side, we also see situations where perfectly competent individuals - individuals who know their stuff and know the situation at hand - are unwilling to say what they think. They remain quiet even when they know better, even when their expertise, experience and gut are telling them otherwise.
Why does this happen?
Fear of leadership. When they’re scared of their boss, afraid of his or her reaction and how their push-back will be interpreted. This is almost always the fault of the boss - who has established an environment (explicitly or implicitly) that isn’t welcoming of and open to debate. This is fundamentally a failure of leadership.
Fear of how our peers will react. When we’re worried about how our peers might react, because, after all, we need to continue working with them on an ongoing basis. This is understandable - because we do need to work with each other and have strong, trusting relationships where we have each others’ backs. But it doesn’t help anyone if the decision being made is done so on the wrong basis and possibly costing the organization in some material, tangible way.
Lack of confidence. When we simply don’t have the strength to stand up for what we believe in, because we doubt ourselves, second guess our own expertise, worry about how it will make us look if maybe we aren’t actually right, after all. This is a self-confidence issue that we bring upon ourselves and, practiced often enough, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Apathy. When we just don’t care, because we’re too tired, too angry, too exhausted to argue and debate and push back. This one is often the worst reason of all, because it’s not as passive as it seems, and is ultimately destructive, to ourselves, the team as well as for the broader organization.
There are other reasons as well, I’m sure, but in my mind, these cover the big ticket issues.
So how do we solve for this?
The bad news is that there’s no silver bullet. No one thing will solve for this. Some of it has to come from leadership, while much of it must come from us. Things like:
Focus on the mission - everybody stays focused on the goal and everything we do and debate and discuss is in pursuit of that goal, not our personal agendas.
Open, honest communication - fostering an environment that allows for reasonable debate at any and all levels, going up as well as down organization levels.
“De-personalization” of the discussion - if I raise an issue, even if it is contrary to what you’re proposing, it’s not because of you personally. It’s because I’m focused on the mission and getting the best work done.
Use of the right language - even if I am focused on the mission and not you as a person, I still have a responsibility to use the right words, to avoid emotional or accusatory words, to be thoughtful in how I object, etc.
No agendas - leave your personal biases and departmental goals at the door. Let’s reiterate our focus on the overall goal and how we can all get there. Let’s not worry about my immediate benefit or loss. (Easier said than done, for sure, but important to work towards.)
Buy in, or get out - you’re either on this ship or you need to go find another one that’s going where you want. If apathy has taken over, then you have a decision to make. You’re either in or you’re out. Not making a decision is far worse, because it eats away at who you are. In or out. Nothing in between.
Believe in yourself - you didn’t get to where you are riding on someone’s coattails. You earned it. You’re in your role for a reason. The expectation is that you can and will contribute. Do it. Give yourself the permission to make mistakes. Everyone does it and it’s OK. In the long run, you’ll have more wins than losses.
Again, I’m sure there are other reasons as well. But these are good ones that will get you out the gate, so to speak.
At the end of the day, speak up. Say what you’re thinking. Say what you mean. Don’t be rude. Don’t be obnoxious. But tell it like it is, thoughtfully.