Why Won’t More Leaders Admit That They Don’t Have All the Answers?

Why Won’t More Leaders Admit That They Don’t Have All the Answers?

Featured on TLNT.com, The Business of HR  Mar 22, 2013, 8:05 AM

The assumption is that leaders always know where they are going and how they’re going to get there.

Most of us weren’t trained to like confusion or to admit when we feel hesitant and uncertain. In our schools and organizations, we place great value on sounding assured and confident and knowledgeable.

Uncertainty has yet to emerge as a higher-order value or behavior that organizations eagerly reward.

The stereotype of the infallible executive persona, and the deeply held belief that we must continually project an aura of confidence and competence, makes it extraordinarily difficult for some leaders to just say, “I don’t know.” (For political leaders it seems nearly impossible.)

It’s much easier to throw up an obfuscating cloud of doublespeak, to offer a glib, condescending sound bite, or even to lie outright than to admit that we simply don’t have the answer. But these are tactics that devalue both the question and the questioner. They may temporarily protect our image, but they are not ethical communications, and they don’t engender trust.

It’s better to know some of the questions than all of the answers. 
— James Thurber

Uncertainty can drive MORE respect

Even good leaders don’t always have all the answers. And the great leaders aren’t ashamed to admit it.

Surprisingly, when leaders reveal uncertainty, and acknowledge that uncertainty with a little humility, the result is not less, but more respect and effort from the workforce. In the landmark five-year Good to Great study conducted by Jim Collins, personal humility was one of the most essential attributes of a great leader.

That’s also the implication of a study led by Zakary Tormala of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. “Expressing uncertainty, as opposed to utter confidence, draws people in,” Tormala says.

Leaders who already know everything, or try to give the impression that they do, are closed to growth, innovation, and change. They present themselves as unteachable and unreachable and fail to make authentic emotional connections.

When leaders admit fallibility and reveal themselves as vulnerable, they engender a very human desire in employees to help that leader, and the company, find a way out of the quagmire. The quid pro quo is that employees usually work harder, with an energized spirit of cooperation.

When we drop the mask, stop trying to be the person we think we’re expected to be, and simply become the person we are, we open doors, making room for others and the solutions they may have.

When we fear distracting the workforce

Perhaps the most baseless excuse I hear for withholding information is the fear of “distracting” the workforce. Particularly when companies are working on a divestiture, an acquisition, or a re-organization, this information will be withheld from employees in the belief that, should they learn of the organization’s plans, they would become instant slackers, losing all initiative and motivation, except, of course, for looking for new jobs.

This is an insulting and paternalistic assumption that infantilizes employees and disregards their own needs and aspirations. It also overlooks the grapevine and the rumor mill that will fill the information vacuum anyway, probably with distorted information.

It assumes that the workforce that is retained after a re-org or layoff will have no memory of how coworkers were treated or that the damage to trust won’t have poisoned work- place culture.

My experience has been that companies who choose to communicate with full candor as much truth as they know, right when they know it, not only build trust in the workforce but find that employees continue to do their jobs.

For an illustration of this, watch Michael Moore’s documentary Roger & Me about the General Motors plant closings in Flint, Michigan. I expect that, just as I was, you’ll be moved by seeing these GM employees, even to the very last hour of their last day of employment, continuing to build cars with the same pride and diligence they had always brought to their work.

Uncertainty about how an initiative will go is a poor reason for information brokering. In the final analysis there just aren’t any good reasons for keeping the workforce in the dark about material facts that affect their lives. Straight talk is always the best policy. In difficult times it may be the best retention strategy that organizations have.

The downside of information brokering

As the economy begins to make slow progress back to recovery, organizations that have adopted a “you can’t handle the truth” attitude with the workforce may discover the downside of information brokering pretty quickly.

The most recent Deloitte Consulting Ethics & Workplace Survey found that when the economy turns around, one-third (34 percent) of employed Americans plan to look for a new job. When asked what factors contributed to their plans to seek new work environments, 48 percent of employees cited a “loss of trust,” and 46 percent said a “lack of transparency in communications.”

International studies echo Deloitte’s data. The British CIPD Employee Outlook Survey for 2010 found that overall trust in leaders is low across the board, with only a third (34 percent) of employees agreeing that they trust their senior management teams and 38 percent disagreeing. Nearly half (47 percent) of employees who strongly distrust their senior management are currently looking for a new job compared to just 8 percent of workers who strongly trust their leaders.

A moral duty of candor

Claire McCartney, resourcing and talent advisor at CIPD, explained that trust is a key part of the employment relations that employers neglect at their peril: “If employees feel there is a gap between what directors say and do, or that there is a lack of transparency or fairness in terms of how people are recognized and rewarded, they are likely to feel disenchanted.”

McCartney pinpointed leadership communication that was frequent, open, and high quality as critical to earning and keeping workforce trust.

I believe that most leaders genuinely value their workforce and want a trust relationship with their employees. But when we ask others to trust us, we assure them that they can rely on us to act on their behalf, to protect them when we can, and to take them into our confidences where their own welfare is concerned.

In our most valuable relationships we have a moral duty of candor where truth and forthrightness is expected. We have an obligation to reveal what those who trust us ought to know for their own good, or want to know so that they can make informed decisions.

Excerpted from DARE: Accepting the Challenge of Trusting Leadership, by Scott Weiss. Reprinted with permission from the author and Greenleaf Book Group Press.

Scott Weiss, author of, “DARE”, is President and CEO of Speakeasy Inc. Through his work at Speakeasy, Scott has helped the leaders of some of the world’s most recognizable brands, including Coca-Cola, Accenture and Wells Fargo, become more authentic communicators. Contact him at scott.weiss@speakeasyinc.com.