The Power of ‘I Don’t Know’

If I think back to all the great leaders (whether by title or otherwise) that I have had or come across in my life they all have one thing in common – they frequently admit to what they don’t know.

There were many instances where throughout a meeting or a discussion someone would direct a question (usually to the leaders in the room) to which the response would be a mystifying “That’s a great question, I don’t know”.

At the time I didn’t know why hearing that phrase from these people made me more inclined to listen to them, more inclined to follow them and more inclined to emulate them.

After all, leaders should know! Otherwise, how did they become leaders in their profession?  These were basic questions that I grappled with very early on in my career.  The problem was that this perspective wasn’t only limited to the workplace, I simply deemed anyone who frequently used the phrase “I don’t know” as an amateur, and discounted him as being a ‘well-informed individual’.

I realized later that this is due to the way I was largely conditioned throughout my academic life.  In academia knowing is succeeding.  To know is to pass! To not know is to fail! Simple!  Therefore, those who knew were automatically labeled ‘Smart’ and those who didn’t know were labeled …well, you get the idea.  As students we strived to know everything, and we were expected to know everything.  In my final capstone course of my Bachelor’s degree we had to deliver a thesis-like presentation for an hour, after which several faculty members would grill you about this topic.  The idea was to stand there for as long as it took answering every question they throw at you, not knowing was not an option.

It’s no surprise that when I started my professional career I would take it upon myself to know all the answers, and at times fake the fact that I know all the answers because God forbid should someone find out that I don’t know I wouldn’t have much of a career!!!

That’s when I started to notice 2 things

1)      I wasn’t particularly well-liked among my peers – for reasons beyond me at the time, and

2)      I began to notice that successful, well-liked leaders, managers, and people in the organization were quick to admit to not knowing when they didn’t know.

After many years of closely observing these successful people and at times working with them I’ve realized that they placed a greater emphasis on working collaboratively than knowing the right answers.  As in, it wasn’t so important to know, as it was in how you go about knowing.

But there is also something to be said about the modesty of it all.  We naturally gravitate towards people who are down-to-earth, who are humble and admit that they do not know everything.  It also displays a great deal of confidence because as we all know, its not easy to say ‘I don’t know’ in front of others but both confidence and honesty are factors that attracts us to others. Especially leaders, because it “brings them down to our level” we’re able to relate to them a lot better and THAT is what attracts us to them.

Reality is we don’t know everything, and we don’t have all the answers and that’s OK!

Not knowing is the first step towards discovery, and exploration.  It’s the ice-breaker to great team-work and the spark for collaboration.

So the next time you’re asked something you don’t know, acknowledge that it’s a great question (after all it stumped even yourself) and ask an ever better question “How can we figure that out?”  

The Art of Escalations: Knowing when pull the trigger and how…

Believe it or not, we have been escalating since the age of 4-5 and surprisingly we haven’t become good at it over time, in fact we haven’t changed much since the good ole’ “MOM! DAD! Bobby hit me!!” days.

We learned to escalate when we realized that involving someone else into our problems will result in action far greater than any we ourselves could exert or apply.

This worked for us as kids because it played out as a defense mechanism “I’m gonna tell mom if you hurt me” or a threat mechanism “If you do that I’m gonna tell dad”.

Surprisingly not much as changed as we grew older and moved into the workforce except for added subtlety and sexy business lingo.  Perhaps you have come across this defense mechanism at work “If we have to take on any additional work we’ll have to have a discussion with [insert manager’s name]” or perhaps you’ve heard this threat mechanism “[insert manager’s name] has committed to this being done by end of day, if its not we’ll have to take it up with although I’m sure he’s not going to be happy”.

We have almost conditioned ourselves to think of escalations as a win-lose scenario!

But when you’re running projects and trying to influence positive change – whether at work or otherwise – a win-lose scenario can only get you so far without adding some resentment and friction to the relationship.

The key to escalating without implying a win-lose scenario is to level-set up-front the reasons and benefits of escalating.  For example:

  1. Escalations are meant to move us forward as a team
  2. We always escalate issues NOT people
  3. We, collectively, will make a decision to escalate to ensure we’re all in agreement
  4. Escalations are a last resort after we have exhausted other options within our control

Simple, right?

One of the biggest traps that we fall into is inconsistency.  What we escalate today may not be what we escalate tomorrow, and unfortunately the speed with which we escalate may depend on WHO we’re working with.  Another common pitfall is NOT communicating (to your team) your intention to escalate and that can catch them by surprise and further fuel an us vs. him/her mentality.

By doing this, we lose credibility among our peers when we escalate, even if we’re right in escalating.  When you realize this, you need to pull yourself out of that trap and re-focus on the issues and facts.

Stay consistent and always ask yourself tough questions “Would I escalate this issue if my friend was working on it?” or “Would I escalate this issue if I had a different manager”,  “Why am I escalating this now?” and most importantly “have I explained to my team the need behind this escalation and my intention in doing so?”

The answers to those questions should give you some insight into whether this escalation will result in a win-lose or a win-win scenario.

After all, that dorky tattletale kid may have been right but he always ate lunch alone.

Problems are always resolved, people’s feelings on the other hand…

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” Maya Angelou

A really good example of this (assuming you’ve been out of school longer than Justin Bieber’s singing career) is to recall your favourite teacher in school or university.  Now hold on to that name for a second, try to recall why that teacher was your favourite?  What exactly did they do? What did they say? Can you remember the situation? Can you remember something they said to you?

For many of us, our memory would only serve us as far the name is concerned.  That’s not to say we have poor memory but it’s a strong indicator that our feelings are hardcoded in our memory.  We remember good and bad.  We may not remember why and quiet frankly that may not be important.

When you begin to realize this, it starts to have a profound effect on the way you deal with others – and believe me I haven’t mastered this, I’m very much still learning!

In today’s corporate culture of high delivery, fast pace, ultra commitments and perhaps careers “on the line” it’s easy to get worked-up over the problems we face day-to-day.  We’re easily overcome with anger, frustration, and a mis-placed feeling of wanting someone to blame.

When that happens….Pause.

Keep saying to yourself “my problem will be resolved”

You may not know at that moment how or by whom, in fact, you may not even have control over that other than taking the appropriate measures and steps to resolve it.

What you can control however, is how you treat people when this happens!  Because everyone you’re working with will not remember this situation or this problem 4 or 5 or even 1 year down the line but they will remember how you made them feel when it happened.

Stay Calm, Cool and Composed.

The key is to control your emotions rather than having them control you.

You maybe accountable for delivery, but you are also accountable for how you behave and work with others and if you have a short fuse you’ll quickly find that not many people will want to be around you to solve the next problem that occurs.

Communicating Urgency (with a sense of urgency)

Imagine for a second that you’re on a moving train travelling at 200km/h now imagine that 10km ahead there is another train also travelling at 200km/h heading in the opposite direction and on same track – a collision course!

If you could only communicate with the conductors via email, how would you frame it?

The way you frame emails today is very important, your first goal shouldn’t be to warn them, it should be to ensure that the email gets read!

1) Start off by including the right names in the ‘TO’ block, NOT the ‘Cc’ block.

Suppose you receive a letter in your home mailbox but you don’t find that it is addressed to you, do you open it to figure out whether your name is inside?

2) The subject line needs to communicate this urgency with tags such as URGENT:… or IMPORTANT… you can also mark it as such MUST READ…or YOUR RESPONSE IS REQUIRED.

The first thing a person reads when they get an email is the subject and that determines the likelihood of whether that email gets read, shelved, or not read at all.

3) The body of your email needs to be short, concise, and to the point.

4) The body of your email needs to be short, concise, and to the point.

5) The body of your email needs to be short, concise, and to the point.

6) Make sure that you utilize the font edit tools available to you to make sure that the impact pops out at the reader.  For example,

In looking at track conditions ahead we determined that your train is on a CRASH COURSE with Train B.

Please STOP your train IMMEDIATELY.

Now read only the BLOCK letters.

7) Tag the email as urgent before sending and always follow up the email with a phone call to make sure that the recipient is aware that there is a critical email that should be arriving at their mailbox and it requires immediate attention. Also follow up an hour later to make sure they’ve read it and actioned it.

One mistake that people are caught doing when conveying urgent information is that they attempt to overload the email by providing greater context, some history, their interpretation of why this occurred and some where between the middle to end of that email they will convey any action plans or response strategies (if any).

The reality is, busy executives, directors, even project managers may not get to the bottom of that email after reading the first few sentences (or anything that appears beyond the preview pane), simply because they read emails to spot urgency, action items, decision points or other specific info.  If they can’t gauge this information from the first few lines then the email drops down on their priority list or read at a later point.

REMEMBER, if the situation requires immediate attention, you may want to convey the action plan first and then follow up with another email providing the additional contextual information.


Is work something you do, a place you go? Or both?

The answer to this usually depends on who you ask and more importantly, the generation they come from.  I have an example that would explain this relatively well.  There have been many days when my father would call me up in the middle of the day (always around noon so as to coincide with “lunch”) to ask me random questions such as “why did the price of gold plummet today?” or “Cheese is on sale at Costco today, do you want me to buy you 5 kilos worth?”.  The conversation always takes an interesting turn when he finds out that I’m working from home.  He will get noticeably irritated and say “I can’t believe your managers would ever agree to something like this, if you were working for me this would NEVER happen!”  At one point I remember humoring him and asking “What is it about working from home that bothers you?” to which he staunchly explained “how can anybody see what you’re doing?! You can just tell people you’re working from home and watch TV all day, this is non-sense.  Works means having to dress up in the morning, it’s having to pack your lunch, leave early, do your time and come back at 5pm”.

Given that my father is not big on political correctness, you would be surprised at how many people share this view (to some extent) – but why is that?                                                                                        

We know for certain that people’s beliefs and realities are largely shaped by the generations they come from and the experiences they’ve accumulated over the years.  For this reason, we can more or less begin to understand where some of those work philosophies come from, so let’s put the generational aspect aside for this discussion.  I’m more interested in how managers manage, because this plays a critical role in how flexible arrangements are viewed.

 Perhaps you’ve come across some of these managers who are “too busy” to be involved in the day-to-day activities of their employees or don’t necessary track their work performance that closely – except of course once or twice a year when ratings and bonuses have to be issued.  For these managers, the quick and sure-fire way of “managing” is to regulate what I refer to as butt-in-seat time.  Butt-in-Seat time is the amount of time you spend at your work desk or at work.  For these managers, flexibility or “work from home” is viewed as a way for employees to slack-off, or worse “not putting in your hours”.

 The biggest assumption, and worst flaw of this approach is of course – assuming that the time spent in the office is equivalent to productivity.  For an employee who works for a ‘butt-in-seat’ manager the goal is relatively simple, manage your face-time and presence around the office.  This might involve sending emails very early in the morning and late in the afternoon, stroll around the office every so often, have an extended lunch, frequent coffee/smoke breaks or initiate useless banter with colleagues so as to give off the impression that you’ve had a long long day.  The consequence? Performance is not accurately tracked.

 This is not to say that work is not being performed at all, however, the amount of work being produced is simply a fraction of what could be achieved.

 Managers have to be accountable for the performance of their employees, and this means that performance has be the main focus when managing employees.  Where this performance occurs should be irrelevant as long as performance is being achieved!  When managers establish this from the beginning it becomes extremely difficult for employees to get around it and they will begin to manage their performance and become more accountable.  Otherwise, poor performers will be easily identified.

 Consider this, in today’s work environment employees – with relative ease – can fill their entire day/week with “meetings”.  They may claim that they simply don’t have enough time to do anything because they’re in meetings ALL day.  When managers begin to hold people accountable and manage to performance, 360 feedback and goal-based metrics, employees will consciously accept the meetings that they absolutely need to be involved in, while passing on the other “nice-to-know” meetings.

 Flexible work arrangements may help with this, by avoiding commute, reducing casual conversations or chatter, and (depending on where you are) offer an environment free of distractions.  Nevertheless, if the employee is not accountable then such an environment could further aid their lack of productivity, but to a performance focused manager this will be easy to spot.

 Managing to performance through increased accountability maybe too simple in theory – but it works!

 So the next time your employee requests flexible work arrangements or work-from-home opportunities, you might want to consider their performance to-date and assess whether they are being accountable – this may work better than tracking their butt-in-seat time.



For some time now I’ve been debating whether to launch my own blog and the biggest questions i had were 1) what would I say? and 2) who cares? no really, who out there really cares?

I was having this discussion with a colleague of mine and he said (as far as what I’d say) “it has to be something you’re very passionate about, something that makes you get up off your seat to debate” and quiet honestly I didn’t know what that is until I found myself a few minutes later speaking with him about accountability in the workplace.   That word gets such a bad reputation.  For most, accountability is another word for blame, so to ask “who is accountable for this?” is to essentially ask “who can i blame for this?” or “if this thing tanks who’s responsible”?  Notice how the context is always negative?

The result is a work-force that gets starry-eyed every time the question of accountability is brought up and when your work-force shys away from accountability they distance themselves from the end the result.  They become disconnected, and quiet frankly, they stop caring because they don’t want to be responsible for anything “if it goes bad”.

Unfortunately, poor leaders and poor managers are to blame for how this word is used today.

Accountability is meant to inspire ownership, take command, and lead the effort & strategy to create change or impact.  This can only be achieved through collaboration.  Think of the captain on a ship, while he/she is accountable for the ship, he/she engages his/her co-captains, his/her crew and even the boatmen so that he/she can ensure that the ship is safe and on-course.  While it’s possible that we may not succeed in what we are accountable for, nevertheless, we will be in the best position to explain the decisions made and the inputs that were considered to create those decisions.  This in a nutshell is accountability!

If you can get your workforce to start thinking about accountability in this way, you’ll find an immediate improvement in soft areas such morale, team & personal engagement, as well as the technical areas of risk analysis and quality control. 

I am a strong promoter of accountability in everything you do and I have built this blog to talk about the many areas of leadership and project/team management that require a strong sense of accountability.  This is what motivates me, its what gets me up off my seat to debate and I hope it inspires and motivates.