“Sometimes the illusion of knowing is more dangerous than not knowing at all.”
– Jamie Holmes, Nonsense
Got it! Done! I know!
Decisiveness and confidence in business are good things – otherwise we never progress. The state of “knowing” makes it possible for leaders to make timely decisions, provide clear direction and solve complex problems. Yet in a business environment marked by vast amounts of data, an increasingly global and diverse work force and constant change, it is increasingly critical to be willing to challenge one’s sense of certainty.
Do you have the relevant information, and all of it, and have you consulted with the right locations and people? What happens if things change, which they’re almost guaranteed to, and maybe even sooner than anticipated? What if you’re wrong? Unfortunately, because we humans are hard wired to hate ambiguity and uncertainty, as Jamie Holmes describes in his book Nonsense, instead of developing a ‘growth mindset,’ many leaders experience an epidemic of second-guessing and paralysis.
Yet it is precisely because 21st century leaders and managers are faced with so many more dynamic factors that balancing knowing with a healthy dose of vulnerability is a modern and necessary leadership capability.
Vulnerability is: The willingness to suspend ego and not know the answers, to admit your knowledge gaps, to eagerly engage others in problem solving, to be in uncertainty, to let others see your imperfections, and to accept your own flaws. You might be wondering how admitting what you don’t know can help you be a better decision-maker.
Check out vulnerability in action
Take for example the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) doctor I interviewed recently who works in one of the most respected hospital systems in the country. She spends significant time treating a diverse array of patients with imminent, life-threatening and complex problems in the ICU, which is the very manifestation of “unpredictable disruption.” In this fast-paced environment, she, like her colleagues, is constantly “triaging.” In other words, she is “always trying to figure out what problem has to be addressed next…which problem is most important and urgent.”
One might think such a high intensity, life-and-death place would reject the notion of vulnerability, but in fact it is often at the core of her toughest decisions. When faced with a complex medical problem that presents novel challenges or pushes the boundaries of her own experience, this physician does not hesitate to consult with colleagues to add additional knowledge or share past experience.
It’s because of the very unpredictability of the circumstances and the life-and-death stakes, that she is so motivated to engage others in making the best decision possible for her patients. Given the unpredictability of a patient’s response to treatment and the reality that even medicine has its limits, knowing that she’s “done [her] very best for the patient” is what allows her to continue having the confidence necessary for such a harrowing job.
If an ICU doctor making life-and-death decisions can admit she might not have all the answers, so can us mere mortals who lead teams and run businesses.
The high stakes pressure of life and death decision-making can help physicians shed self-defeating traits like pride and ego when circumstances resemble a VUCA world. The ICU doctor quoted above describes the struggle some physicians experience in asking for help in terms we can all relate to: Some doctors may be reluctant to ask for help because of the “ego thing; or not wanting admitting to yourself that you don’t know something [the pride thing]; or even social anxiety [discomfort approaching others].”
Even though the business stakes are growth and innovation rather than life-and-death, there is still enough motivation – company survival – to pay attention to the case for the power of vulnerability in leadership.
Improved business performance
Admitting knowledge gaps opens leaders up to new ideas, better performance and better understanding of a situation or problem. Take the approach of the CEO of a major retailer as he prepared to step into a very public turnaround role: he served as company president for several months while learning about less familiar parts of the business from the incumbent.
Where ego or discomfort might have misled that CEO to not admit gaps in his knowledge about factories and merchandising, his priority of effectively transforming the retailer led him to greater curiosity and into a period of critical, high quality learning from someone who could help him fill those knowledge gaps. The company’s monthly closing stock price was up over 30% in the 18 months after his appointment and the company posted revenue growth and positive free cash flow for multiple, consecutive years.
Improved personal performance
The reality is that we learn – the action at the root of a growth mindset – when we acknowledge and highlight the gap between what we know and what we want or need to know. This uncomfortable gap is bridged only when we reveal it to ourselves and to others who have the ability to help us gain the knowledge we seek. Recent research has suggested that accepting and acting on critical feedback about our knowledge gaps has become increasingly difficult due to a growing tendency to reject perceived critical feedback in favor of an inflated view of ourselves.
Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible for us to grow without acknowledging our flaws and the unavoidable gaps in our abilities. We all have a bit of narcissism in us – our challenge is to keep it in check. Compounding that fact is that humans are hard wired to hate uncertainty, making it difficult to get us to sit in that uncomfortable space of not knowing. If we can accept we have gaps and can tolerate this discomfort of uncertainty while we learn and grow, we are practicing vulnerability.
The best leadership coaching clients I work with are those who are able to accept they do not know everything, get curious about what they want or need to learn, and then work exceptionally hard at building a new way of being. Changing one’s mindset does not come without struggle, but then again nothing truly satisfying every does.
Improved team performance
Leaders are nothing without followers, yet a willingness to follow is earned through trust and respect. Contrary to the myth of hero leadership, invincibility in our fellow humans garners our awe but not always our respect and followership. Authenticity – keeping it real – is the antidote to the myth of invincibility in the 21st century.
The same applies to your team or organization. Think of it this way: if you already know everything, there is no value in having others around; team members will eventually pick up on this reality and either shut down or leave altogether. They know the truth that no one person can know everything and be right all the time, and they are likely waiting for you to realize it, too. With the realities of unpredictable change and constant disruption in business today, only the all-in engagement of a well-selected team will effectively fuel the engines of growth and innovation.
With so much hard data to back up the power of vulnerability in business, why then do we still work so hard to maintain the impression of being in control, knowing the answers, having it all figured out? It is human nature, some say, hard wired into our way of being. Yet researchers have also proven that humans can re-wire their brains by practicing new behaviors.
So far, we’ve got a doctor fighting for the lives of her patients and the CEO of a century-old retail icon willing to be vulnerable and admit what they don’t know to get better outcomes. What will you do to start developing your vulnerability and improve your performance in a VUCA business world?