At least I catch myself acting like I do. I’ve been so guilty of this and it’s a bad place to be as an engineer. There have been moments when speaking to other professionals where I would nod “yep, I totally know what you’re talking about.” Only to have to look it up later and feel the fool for not asking. Time and effort could have been saved if I just had the wherewithal to say: “I’m sorry, I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about.”
Expert’s Input: In a brief post by Geoffrey James on the 11 Habits of Highly Ineffective Managers, he talks about the strength and weaknesses of being a Know-It-All. For instance: “Weak bosses quash discussions that might reveal their ignorance, belittle the true expertise in the group. Strong bosses draw on the expertise of the entire group in order to make better-informed decisions.”
When you’re inserted into a project manager position, someone else either has surrounded you with a team, or you’ve had the good fortune to pick your team members. Regardless, these team members are there to assist you in getting the project done and can provide valuable insight for effective and efficient ways to move the project along. I’ve seen, and been guilty of myself, where someone of authority lacks the humility, or doesn’t want to look ignorant in the face of the situation, to admit they just don’t know.
Sure, you can demonstrate humility in yourself when you can admit you don’t know something. But, even more than that, you can demonstrate respect for the individual(s) to whom you are interacting with when you can ask them a question. You weren’t put in the captain’s chair because they thought you had all the answers, you were put there because you know how to get all the answers. But, that means being willing to look and listen.
Is it pride? Ego? Or fear that people will think lesser of me if I admit ignorance? I know quality people in positions of authority who ask “what’s that?” all the time. And when they ask it of me, I feel the project relationship is bolstered by their trust in me to answer, or find an answer. I still struggle with this day to day, but I’ve been better about it lately for when I ask right then and there, not only do I save time for me later, and not only did I instill some respect in the individual I was talking to, but I also typically gained information that I would never have gained looking for those answers on my own.
Expert’s Input: Cary Tennis in In How do I stop being a know-it-all? makes one comment that especially struck me: “Try to be wrong. Yep, just be wrong. Be wrong a lot — but silently!”
How are you supposed to be wrong but silently? By asking when you don’t know. By the time you’re asking, you already have had time to consider a possible solution(s). And when you get the answer back from your team, and it’s not what you’re solution was, you don’t have to say anything. So, you were wrong, and silent. Now do it again. This is going to foster humility and respect for your team members
Expert’s Input In Amy Rees Anderson’s blog Being The Best Isn’t About Knowing The Most she makes a lot of good points but one that struck me the most was when responding to someone, or even being the instigator of a discussion after you’ve delivered your idea you follow with: “Those are my initial thoughts, but I would really value hearing your thoughts as well.”
What a great way to open an engaging conversation. Her blog post goes on about some other tremendous stuff, but concerning how not to be a know-it-all, I want to share one more thing from her post: “Your willingness to appreciate them will help you to avoid becoming defensive or feeling threatened in any way.” This also can be done silently as you grow from the knowledge of others. Albert Einstein had a great quote and in equation form it’s: Ego = 1/knowledge. “More knowledge, lesser the ego, lesser the knowledge, more the ego.” Great stuff!
Expert’s Input: I found another great way to stop being a know-it-all in How to Avoid Seeming like an Arrogant, Know-it-all Jerk by Gretchen Rubin. In it, one of the things she hits on is allowing others to supply information. She says: “I’ve seen good leaders ask questions to which they knew the answers, merely to allow others the chance to demonstrate what they know.” That’s so good and typically completely counterintuitive to what our impulses are. As a project manager we want to get in there and start providing the answers, not hold back and let the team come with their own solution.
She also says: “Admit error! It’s so hard to say ‘You were right, I was wrong’ or ‘This was my fault,’ but so important. Also, it’s a key to leadership. As my father once told me, ‘If you’ll take responsibility for failure, you’ll be given responsibility for decisions.’” That last statement is so powerful. We’re all going to error, it’s part of the process. But, we do our best learning when things go awry so it comes as no surprise that her dad is probably right, we’ll be given more when we’re accountable for the stumbles along the way.
I recently posted The Foundation of any Project, the People a piece about a contractor that took a weekend for his family. The project was running 24/7 so I had to find another way to substitute his specific skill through the weekend. The result was, our professional relationship was bolstered by these events. This same contractor, later on in the project, when we were discussing some upcoming work came up with a great idea that ultimately saved the project a lot of money. How? By eliminating the need for his services. Yep, his idea supplanted work that we would have paid him to do. Would I have gotten that same idea without him, maybe? But probably not from a guy that was willing to reduce his workload. The fact is, by forcing his hand during that family weekend would have been akin to cutting off my arm. By listening, hearing, and understand the original situation put me in a position to where later, I could again listen and greatly benefit from the professional relationship.
Expert’s Input: “Beyond caring, engage yourself in matters important to your employees. When they share their opinions, ask questions and encourage them to elaborate and expand upon their perspectives. When you engage yourself more actively, hold yourself accountable and follow-up with your employees, they will know that you are listening, paying attention and attempting to understand what matters most to them.” This is an excerpt from Glenn Llopis in 6 Ways Effective Listening Can Make You A Better Leader.
I’ve personally embraced the act of engagement. See another recent post of mine called: In Your Face Time! In it I talk about active engagement. One more quote form Glenn Llopis’s article: “Listening is a leadership responsibility that does not appear in the job description. Those who do listen to their employees are in a much better position to lead the increasingly diverse and multigenerational workforce.” This is so true; more and more as project managers we’re going to need strong listening skills because more and more employees, team members and the public at large are finding their voice in so many ways.
Expert’s Input: In 5 Ways to Tell If You’re Not Listening to Your Team, Dale Kurow wraps it up for this blog post: “Just because the conversation is over, doesn’t mean your involvement is. Failing to remember the discussion can jeopardize your trustworthiness and forgetting to follow up can do even more damage. You’ll hear from your employees less and less if they feel ignored.” Follow up; that’s it. Be true to yourself as the projects manager and be accountable for what you and your team have together come to conclude.
So, go out and engage, ask questions when you know the answers, be wrong, be accountable, listen, and follow up. You, your team, and the project will greatly benefit.
Image Credits: Sketches by Author