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

by Sue Elliott

Do you feel like you need to have all the answers? Even if you don’t, most of the people in your organization 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 the 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 just 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, we suspect the vast majority of executives and managers believe they should have all the answers — even though they couldn’t possibly know everything that’s going on at all levels and in all departments within their organization. Plus, 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 people put on a brave face and pretend they know — particularly when their boss asks a question, or when a direct-report does. After all, they want to look good. They 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 someone is pretending to know, they give an answer that they 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? In this sort of environment, people are 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 life out of a company and everyone working in it.

Letting Go

Letting go of the need to have all the answers is empowering — both for leaders and their people. 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 before you ask someone a question 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 people 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 they’re 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, before you ask the question, tell them “There is no right answer.”
  2. Let them know this is purely an exploratory conversation.
  3. Describe the topic that you’d like to explore and ask for their input.
  4. Acknowledge and appreciate any information they share.
  5. Delve deeper by asking powerful, 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. Again, acknowledge and appreciate the 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.

About the Author

Sue Elliott is one of the pioneering business and thought leaders featured in The Future of the Workplace and has helped hundreds of thousands of people through her Consciousness Catalyst coaching/mentoring and online magazine, as well as through media appearances and a personal-growth magazine she created that was sold on newsstands nationwide.

Sue is a member of the Conscious Leadership Guild, and she served on the executive team of Conscious Capitalism in Orange County. She also serves as a Board Member (and formerly a C-level executive) for PATH2, an education-technology startup that helps people determine a career they’ll love and be great at. Sue also has considerable content and marketing background, and has helped clients succeed at selling their products through major retailers in the United States (including Amazon, Target and Walmart).