You do not need to know everything! Unfortunately, to maintain their authority many project managers and other leaders feel they need to be the expert that has the answer to every question. They think is a sign of weakness to ask for help or information or simply admit they ‘don’t know’. Rather than asking for input from their team, they burn energy trying to work out the answer themselves, even when it’s clear that this is not possible. Rather than being upfront with their team and managers, they either hide and don’t tell anyone they’re wrestling with a problem; or simply hope the issue goes away.
The simple fact is that if you don’t know something and waste your time trying to find the answer, or worse still make an expensive mistake based on incomplete of false knowledge, no-one benefits least of all you; particularly if you have pretended to be the source of ‘all knowledge’! Once your bluff has been exposed your credibility is destroyed and with it your ability to lead effectively (see more on effective leadership).
Strangely, most people are happy to offer help when someone else asks for it, but are shy or embarrassed to ask for help themselves. Strong leaders, managers and team members have the ability to overcome this ‘shyness’, take the time to clearly understand what they don’t know and then proactively seek help to build their knowledge and capability.
Everyone wins by asking for information or help when needed, rather than wasting time and energy trying to solve the problem themselves. The key is asking the ‘right questions’ in the ‘right way’ (see more on the art of effective questioning) – the combination of engaging with team members through effective questions and making them feel important through active listening makes you a better leader and will also show your team that it is OK for them to ask for help as well. Then as a bonus, all of the energy that was being wasted wondering, researching and struggling to solve the problem can be used for positive purposes and the team moves forward.
The power of ‘not knowing’ will generate all sorts of efficiencies and open up two way communication within the team. A couple of examples include:
- You can use your lack of knowledge to delegate (see more on the art of delegation). There are some tasks that are simply better delegated to an expert who knows precisely how to do the job quickly. I’m sure everyone could learn to use pivot tables in Excel – but is it worth several hours of struggle when a knowledgeable expert can solve the issue in a few minutes – even if the expert is the most junior member of the team?
- You can use your lack of knowledge is to engage team members. Go to a team member and get them to talk you through the challenge they have been working on. Tell them you haven’t really been across it and would like a briefing. You’ll get the lowdown on the task they are attacking and some good insights into how they work.
Finally, by actively demonstrating to your team that you ask for help when needed will encourage them to do the same, and as a consequence reduces errors, frees up communication and enhances the flow of information in a positive way. This may seem obvious, but it won’t happen without a push in the right direction.
Things you can do as a leader:
- First, stop talking to yourself and decide that you are going to talk to someone else.
- Decide who that person will be.
- Craft the conversation. Write down what you are going to ask them and how you hope they will respond.
- Schedule a meeting with the person and promise you will ask them for help and be open to their suggestions.
- Tell someone of your intentions; someone who will hold you to account for having the meeting and asking for help.
Then be pleasantly surprised; most people are honored to be asked to assist their friends and colleagues and by asking for help you are showing them you respect their knowledge and abilities. This approach will even work with your boss and other stakeholders provided you ask intelligent questions in the right way, at the right time.
So in summary, it really is OK to know what you don’t know and seek help! The skill is being able to ask effective questions that get the right answers and then having the knowledge needed to appreciate and use the information once you have received your answer. Remember, as a leader and a manager, in the end you are measured by what you actually achieve, not what you claim to know!