Why the BEST Leaders Don’t Even Try to Have All the Answers

Do you feel like you need to have all the answers? Most people do. 

This need was ingrained in us from a very early age: When we’re in school and the teacher calls on us, we’re supposed to know the answer. The right answer.

And we are expected to have ALL the right answers, all time time, for years... All the way through elementary school. Middle school. High school. College. 

We’re expected to have the right answers on aptitude tests. Skills tests. Job interviews!

But a funny thing happens once we move into a leadership role within an organization: It becomes impossible to have all the right answers.

The Iceberg of Ignorance
Have you ever heard of “The Iceberg of Ignorance”? Japanese consultant Sidney Yoshida coined the term in a study that he presented at the International Quality Symposium in Mexico City in 1989. According to Yoshida, 100% of an organization’s front-line problems are known by front-line employees. This totally makes sense, right? 

However, Yoshida found that when he went up one level in management, to the front-line employees’ supervisors, those supervisors only knew 74% of the front-line problems. After all, people “manage up.” They want to look good in front of their boss. Plus, some supervisors “don’t want to hear it.” And people are busy. They may not have time to tell their supervisors about every problem, large and small. So ... only 74% of the front-line problems are known by front-line supervisors. 

Naturally, the pattern continues as you move up within the organization. By the time you get to middle management, according to Yoshida, those managers are aware of only 9% of an organization’s front-line problems. 

And top management? They’re only aware of 4% — just the tip of the iceberg! 

In short: The higher up someone is in an organization, the less likely that person is to have all the information about front-line problems. 

And without all that information, how can someone possibly have all the answers?

Pretending to Know
Unfortunately, I suspect the vast majority of leaders and managers believe they should have all the answers [Click to Tweet] — even though they couldn’t possibly know everything that’s going on at all levels and in all departments within their organization. And even though the world is changing so quickly that what we know right this second ... may not be true and accurate anymore ... in this second.  

But because we’ve been entrained to have all the right answers, all the time, many of us put on a brave face and pretend we know — particularly when our boss asks us a question, or when a direct-report does. After all, we want to look good. We want to seem “on top of things.”

Pretending to have all the answers is stressful. It’s lonely. It’s draining.

And what if, when we are pretending to know, we give an answer that we later discover is wrong? Yikes! Now what?

In this situation, many people feel forced to “stick to their guns,” even in the face of conflicting evidence. So they wind up suffering from stress, anxiety and fear that they’ll be found out.
They may even hide the “correct answer” to save face, which certainly doesn’t do their conscience — or their company — any good.

Can you see how this need to have all the answers, all the time, can contribute to a culture of assumptions, half-truths and even outright lies? [Click to Tweet]

In this sort of environment, do you think people are connecting deeply and sharing freely? Of course not. They’re competing with one another and hoarding information, because they believe the person with the right answer wins!

Talk about depleting... This kind of culture sucks the energy out of a company and everyone working in it.

And that is why I regularly help leaders let go of their need to have all the answers. 

Letting Go Is Empowering
Letting go of the need to have all the answers is hugely empowering — both for leaders and for the people they work with. [Click to Tweet] There’s a huge upside to “not knowing.”

For starters, letting go of the need to have all the answers is incredibly liberating. It feels like an enormous weight has been lifted off your shoulders. Relief!

Plus, leaders who come from a space of “not knowing” are far more likely to ask their people to share insights, opinions and experiences. 

Warning: This only pays off when you make it clear, up front, before you ask people questions, that they are not expected to have all the right answers all the time, either. If your employees (or colleagues) think they’re supposed to have the right answer, then your questions don’t feel empowering; they feel like a pop quiz!

In contrast, when your employees know they’re not expected to have the right answer, then being asked a question feels more like an honor. Like you value their opinion and insights. Like they’re being invited on an exploratory mission and are key members of the crew. 

When you ask the other people in your company for their thoughts, insights and intel:
• You build camaraderie, teamwork and collaboration.
• You show respect and trust.
• You gain access to the other 96% of the information in your company’s iceberg.
• And you energize your people and your business.

Try it and see for yourself:
1) Approach a couple people today and let them know you’re not looking for the “right answer.” In fact, you might even want to tell them there is no right answer.
2) Let them know this is purely an exploratory mission. 
3) Describe the topic that you’d like to explore together and ask for their input.
4) Acknowledge and appreciate the various pieces of information that they share.
5) Delve deeper by asking empowering, dot-connecting questions, like: 
    • What do you think is really happening here? 
    • Have you ever experienced anything like this before?
    • What else would we need to know to really understand this?
6) Acknowledge and appreciate the awarenesses and insights ... and the further questions ... that arise organically from this process. 

It’s a safe bet that you, your people and your business will be richer for the experience.

How You Can Use Positive Practices to Enhance Performance

A few years ago, I joined a meeting of senior executives to discuss the way forward on a multi-billion-dollar government funding initiative. Pressure to deliver on a major change agenda was palpable. Stakes were high. The room’s energy felt dense. Very dense. 

The Senior Vice President who was presiding over our meeting came in and sat down at one end of the huge boardroom table. I could sense that the individuals in the room were ready to fight to obtain every bit of funding they could get for their separate proposals.

Then, a series of acts of pure leadership resonance unfolded. 

This Senior Vice President started to make us laugh, nonstop, by really showing up as a person. He did so by taking the time to build meaningful connections between people. He introduced everyone in the room with colorful humour. He conveyed funny stories. And he facilitated our meeting through laughter, amplifying people’s input and allowing everyone to jump in and comment freely. 

The energy in the room was expansive and juicy. The laughter, mixed with great actionable insights, created amazing alignment among the senior executives. Far from feeling like a fierce competition, this meeting felt like real, tangible collaboration and collegiality. We were pulling together as a team. A spirit of camaraderie and fun flourished.

Positive Practices Predict Performance

How did one senior leader effect such a dramatic change in such a short timeframe? He did it by amplifying positive emotions, including respect, integrity, care, gratitude and appreciation. For years now, research into positive attitudes within organizations has documented that positive practices predict organizational and team performance. 

Positive energy, when amplified, can massively and quickly shift people’s negative emotional states into positive ones. [Click To Tweet]

In this example, one senior executive’s use of laughter, appreciation and gratitude instantly led to improved individual and team performance, noticeable in both stronger interpersonal relationships and clearer decision-making. 

You can do the same in your organization. When others are moving through dense and sluggish energies at work, such as frustration, anger and anxiety, you can help to shift that negative energy. To do so, you can:

  1. Be fully present. Stop whatever else you are doing and connect with people.
  2. Acknowledge how people are showing up, without judging.
  3. Express positive emotions. For instance, you can show respect, care and appreciation by inquiring into the cause of people’s negative energy states.
  4. Amplify positive energy by asking empowering questions from a space of openness, collaboration, curiosity, playfulness or whatever positive energy states come naturally for you.

When you are being fully present, acknowledging people and amplifying positive emotions, you are generating real forward momentum. [Click to Tweet] 

While at first it may feel as if you are intentionally slowing down, these four steps will enable you — and your teams and organization — to pick up incredible speed. These actions create and nurture a space in which positive energy, positive relationships and positive results can flourish.

The Power of Curiosity at Work — Amplify Your Personal Power

I recently had the privilege of traveling for a week with a client who’s the CEO of a tech company. We were meeting with a major supplier for his company, as well as a potential investor, a potential new business partner and a prospective client who could mean a lot of business for the company.

I was facilitating conversations with all of these current and potential stakeholders. My role was to create a space for open and honest dialogue, and to help with negotiations, due diligence and relationship building.

And at the core of all of that was curiosity.

Curiosity is incredibly powerful. It’s a state of being that gets energy flowing between people. And it opens up all kinds of new awarenesses and understandings.

If you’ve ever spent time with a three-year-old, you understand the power of curiosity. Three-year-olds are constantly asking questions, and most of them begin with the word why. Why is the sky blue? Why do I have to brush my teeth? Why can’t I put chocolate syrup on my chicken (an excellent question!)?

You’ve probably noticed that three-year-olds don’t ask just one question, either. They keep asking and asking and drilling deeper. Often, they get to a point where we adults just can’t answer their questions anymore.

While this can definitely get frustrating, it’s also empowering. Three-year-olds come from a place where everything is fresh and new and interesting. And, sometimes, they bring us with them and we get to see things in a new way.

Curiosity can serve the same purpose in business. For example, when something is going wrong, we can approach it with an attitude of interrogation: “I’m going to demand answers and get to the bottom of this.” Or we can approach it with an attitude of curiosity: “I wonder what’s going on here.”

Can you feel which attitude is going to create a space for open and honest dialogue and new awarenesses and understandings ... and which attitude is not?

Our attitude very literally affects the energy of the people we speak with. [Click To Tweet] Our attitude can cause someone to withdraw and become quiet, defensive and guarded. Or our attitude can cause someone to blossom and become clear, inspired and creative.

Our personal power here comes from recognizing that we have a choice, and then consciously choosing our attitude. To tap into that personal power, we simply have to:

  1. Pause before we take action, and
  2. Choose how we are going to show up in that moment.

Sometimes I’ll choose to show up with compassion. Sometimes I’ll choose to show up with appreciation. And often, I’ll choose to show up with curiosity — and not just because of how it affects others. Yes, curiosity creates an expansive space that energizes other people. But there’s another big bonus to showing up at work with curiosity: Curiosity energizes me. [Click To Tweet]

While it’s true that I may feel lots of energy flowing through me while I’m interrogating someone, afterward, I’ll be left feeling drained and depleted, and so will the other person.

In contrast, being curious — for an hour or for a day — leaves me feeling satisfied, and often feeling eager, excited and energized.

Bottom line: Being curious is life-enhancing — and productive — both for me and for the people I’m interacting with. Plus, being curious is fun, and goodness knows we can all use more fun at work!

So, would you like to experience the power of curiosity at work today?

If you would, simply ask yourself: How many times can I choose to shift into a more curious space?

Then, if you feel yourself getting frustrated or upset in any way... or if you need to figure out something new... or if you’re involved in intense negotiations or building new relationships... pause for a moment and choose to show up with an attitude of curiosity. Odds are, you’ll feel better right away — and be more productive, too.

How Does Stuck Energy at Work Feel? And How Do You Get It Unstuck?


What does stuck energy feel like in a workplace? [Click To Tweet]

Stuck energy feels uncomfortable. It feels like resistance. It feels like tension, anxiety, friction, frustration. Because of stuck energy, you might instinctively avoid certain people or certain areas in your workplace.

So, how do you get the energy flowing again? It’s a two-step process:

  1. Identify the cause of the discomfort.
  2. Release the resistance.

Sometimes that work is done within a single individual — for instance, a person might shift his or her perspective about a situation and suddenly let go of all resistance.

And sometimes that work requires bringing a team... or department heads... or division heads... into the same room and facilitating open and honest dialogue to uncover what’s really going on.

If you’re feeling stuck energy right now, you can begin the process of getting energy flowing again by asking empowering questions. Questions like:

  • When do I feel the discomfort?
  • Do I feel discomfort when I go into a particular area at work?
  • Do I feel discomfort when I think about a particular person?
  • Do I feel discomfort when I think about a particular project?

Once you’ve identified the trigger, you can begin using the same kind of questions to explore your options. For instance, if you feel triggered whenever you think about a particular person, you can ask questions like:

  • What can I do to shift my energy in response to this person?
  • What would it take to shift my perspective about this person?
  • What do I need to know to feel more comfortable around this person?
  • What is really going on here?

These kinds of questions are really powerful. When you’re feeling stuck energy, stop. Sit for a moment. Breathe in each question. The questions will open you up to broader awareness and help you amplify your personal power. They’ll allow energy to flow more freely within you, and they have the power to quickly shift your relationship with people, projects, pretty much everything. You can do this process as frequently as you need to — or even schedule it into each day, so that you continually release your own stuck energy.

[A big thank you to Arizona Lowe and Katrina Pfannkuch of the “Thinking Out Loud” show for asking great questions during your interview with Johann Gauthier, which inspired this post.]