You don’t know everything. It’s as simple as that and more importantly everyone else around you knows that you don’t know everything. This very thought should be liberating. It allows you to be wrong sometimes, it allows you to make mistakes, and it allows you be honest and upfront when you don’t know something. At least that is how a strong leader sees it. But not a weak leader. A weak leader tries to paint themselves as an expert in everything without realising that they are just setting themselves up for significant and embarrassing failure. By not accepting that they do not know everything (or even just accepting that no-one else believes them when they pretend to know everything) they are forced into an uncomfortable position of always having to give an answer. Even if they have no idea what they are talking about.
The better solution is to accept that everyone has holes in their knowledge and just be honest about it. Saying “I don’t know” is a much stronger option but alas, not many people like to admit they don’t know something. The feel insecure about admitting to a lack of knowledge, even though doing so actually gives off a strong impression of confidence and self awareness.
But admitting to a lack of knowledge is only half the problem. Not only do people pretend to have knowledge in areas they know nothing about but they also tend to drastically overestimate the accuracy of their knowledge.
You could say that these people have no idea that they have no idea. Put in a nicer way – these people don’t know what they don’t know.
People don’t know what they don’t know
This has been proven in many psychological studies but a prime example is the work conducted by Alpert and Raiffa. They tested a set of Harvard MBA students by asking them to make range-based predictions of an unknown variable and to ensure they achieved 98% accuracy. The test was not to measure their actual knowledge but their individual evaluation of their own knowledge.
If we assume that everyone can accurately estimate their own knowledge then the expectation is that we would only find 2 errors per 100 people surveyed. The results, however, were vastly different.
These “experts” over-estimated their own knowledge by so much that the actual error rate was a mammoth 45%! That is to say that nearly half of the test population failed to accurately understand the difference between what they actually knew and what they thought they knew.
This problem isn’t limited to just highly-educated professionals. Similar studies have been repeated with all sorts of cross-sections of society (different race, religion, socioeconomic status etc) and the results are all undeniable. The average error rate is in the 15-30% range (not the expected 2%) and this occurs for all groups tested regardless of the makeup of the individuals within the group.
Applications for leaders (and wannabe leaders)
This has important consequences for those diligently (or desperately?) trying to look like an expert so they can climb the corporate ladder. Put simply: don’t bother.
Don’t pretend to be an expert if you aren’t one, don’t try to seem like you know everything, and don’t try to bluster your way through work (or life) with bullshit and lies. It just doesn’t make sense.
Instead, have enough courage to admit what you don’t know. Be honest and accept the holes in your knowledge. There are many benefits to doing so.
Firstly, by being honest to yourself about your level of knowledge you allow yourself to be continually learning and growing. If you admit that you do not know everything then you can actually ask questions of the real experts and start learning more. That’s right; you can actually get smarter when you don’t care about looking smart.
Another benefit to be gained from not being a know-it-all is that people won’t treat you like one. This is a good thing as it means people will actually listen to what you say. When you always have an answer (even if you’re just making one up on the spot) people will give your ideas and comments less credence. But when you are honourable enough to say “I don’t know” it changes the way you are seen. People give you more respect and are more willing to listen when you speak up later on.
Finally, the biggest and most important part of being a good leader is that your job is to manage and motivate other people to grow. A good leader is someone who knows that their main responsibility is to get the best out of the real experts. A good leader is uninterested in showing off or appearing smarter than they actually are – they only care about delivering the best possible outcomes and they do this by leveraging the knowledge of the experts around them.
A good leader is not an expert in everything. A good leader is an expert at knowing what they don't know and an expert at motivating others. Are you a good a leader?