"Sometimes the illusion of knowing is more dangerous than not knowing at all."
- Jamie Holmes, Nonsense
Decisiveness and confidence in business are good things. 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. Unfortunately, because we humans are hardwired to hate ambiguity and uncertainty, what should be a practice of learning and growth turns into 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 can admitting what you don't know help you be a better decision-maker?
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Take for example the multi-specialty partner-physician I interviewed recently who works in one of the most respected U.S. hospital systems. This physician spends significant time treating a diverse array of patients with imminent and complex problems in the hospital's Intensive Care Unit (ICU), the very manifestation of "unpredictable disruption." In this fast-paced environment, she, like her colleagues, is "always triaging." In other words, "[She is] always trying to figure out what problem has to be addressed next... which one is most important and urgent."
One might think such a high intensity, life-and-death place would reject the notion of vulnerability, but 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 experience, this physician does not hesitate to consult with colleagues to add knowledge or share past experience. In fact, in a life and death environment, she is even more motivated to make the best decision possible for the patients in her care. 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 treating the most urgent, complex patients with 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.
High stakes game
The high stakes pressure of life and death decision making tends to help many (not all) physicians shed self-defeating traits like pride and ego when the going gets tough. The doctor I interviewed 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 to admit to yourself that you don't know something [the pride thing]; or even social anxiety [discomfort approaching others]." But the case is growing stronger for the power of vulnerability in business.
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 Marvin Ellison, CEO of JC Penney, took as he prepared to step into the turnaround role at this embattled retail giant in 2014: he served as company president for nine months while learning about less familiar parts of the business from the incumbent, Mike Ullman.
Where ego or discomfort might have misled Ellison to not admit gaps in knowledge about factories and merchandising, his priority of effectively transforming JC Penney led him to greater curiosity and into a period of critical, high quality learning from someone who could help him fill those knowledge gaps. JC Penney's monthly closing stock price is up over 30% since January 2015 and the company has posted revenue growth and positive free cash flow for two consecutive years.
Improved personal performance
The reality is that we learn - 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 aversion to critical feedback in favor of an inflated self-view.
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 hardwired 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.
With so much evidence 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 and having it all figured out? It is human nature, some say, hardwired into our way of being. Yet researchers have also proven that humans can re-wire their brains with practice. What can you do to start practicing vulnerability?
This article previously appeared on desaitransformation.com.
Desai Transformation LLC is a business advisory and executive coaching firm that helps leaders and organizations transform and change effectively to realize their strategies. We provide modern, practical and candid insights and approaches to executive-level change leaders and management teams around the world and in a variety of industries.
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