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ATD Blog

Wondering and Wandering: The Intrigue of Negative Capability

Thursday, May 12, 2022

There is no shortage of training and development strategies regarding recruiting and growing human talent. Cohort-based design, e-learning, simulation employee training, applied case studies, coaching, and hybrid program delivery all play their respective roles in building and maintaining our most valuable resources. But one of the most impactful approaches for building talent and meeting our organizational missions lies simply in the way we view not knowing.

Not having an answer is difficult for most of us. We are neurologically wired always to be prepared with the solution, and neuroscientists have shown throughout the years that how we see the world depends on perceptual filters programmed into our minds from the earliest age. These filters serve an important function: They keep us alive. They also provide us with the ability to know the answers, make quick decisions, and build solid neural pathways that allow our brains to operate efficiently and effectively. In addition, they arm us with the ability to make statements like I’m sure, I know, and I can tell you. This predictability, certainty, and continuity give us a sense of balance and presence.

Expectations matter as well. We are extolled throughout our careers not just to bring problems to our bosses but to couple them with answers. From an early age, we have been told that having the remedy is tantamount to success. We are rewarded in school when we know the answers and pass exams. There is a consistent pressure to show what we know. This manifests itself in the workplace or classroom with the I already know that or the Just give me the answer already attitude. This mindset comes with predetermined answers and little intellectual space for absorbing new ideas.

Comfort with the unknown is not an easy path. And one of the most significant challenges to assuring the presence of negative capability lies in the fact that it’s probably not going to be met with open arms. Consider these statements:

  • I don’t know.
  • I’m not sure.
  • I wish I could tell you.

Makes you feel a little nervous, doesn’t it? Maybe uncomfortable? To be true, these three statements don’t inspire a lot of confidence in the workplace. In fact, they may ignite anger and frustration among supervisors. But just how bad is it to hear such proclamations?


To be clear, this isn’t about incompetence, laziness, or ineptitude. This is about an honest and courageous self-assessment that states I need help. Is this so bad? Does this mean our organizations come to a grinding halt? No, not even close. In fact, this sense of wonder can be one of the healthiest signs in an organization and something leaders should rejoice in hearing.

This is not an easy path. Only the most progressive and enlightened leaders can find the humility and grace to be comfortable with the unknown and nurture organizations that infuse their culture with this openness to learning. Organizations with leaders need to remind themselves and others of their importance by making statements such as:

  • Just so you know, I’m a PhD.
  • My name is Director Jocelyn Garcia.

The fact is that when individuals purposefully ignore the irritable search for fact and reason, they begin to welcome negative capabilities. Diversity in all its forms is embraced. There’s a sense of flow and playfulness present. The result is a more open mind, a more engaged human, and better overall outcomes. Understanding and welcoming a sense of wonder fuels a space that fosters a climate of trust, vulnerability, and acceptance. Previous convictions disappear as employees admit their struggles with a particular problem. Undiscussables turn into topics of conversation. Imprisoned mindsets are less likely to stay confined. New ideas begin to emerge, and it costs nothing.

About the Author

Patrick Malone is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics and has extensive experience working with government leaders. Patrick’s research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy. He is a retired navy captain, having spent 22 years in a number of senior leadership and policy roles.

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