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Blog Post

3 Scariest Words Leaders Should Say

Published: Friday, July 31, 2020

At the dawn of our now 28-year relationship, two years before the "I dos," my future husband opened the trunk of my car and asked, "Why is there kitty litter in there?" One of the qualities of this man I was falling in love with was his MacGyver-like skills. The guy was so handy. How could he not know why there was kitty litter in my trunk! "Because, when the road is slippery, it weighs the car down and keeps it from skidding" I replied with a distinct air of superior knowledge. "But," he calmly replied, "it's front-wheel drive. If you weigh down the rear, you're working against the power of the front tires." The guy had a point.

You see, the real reason I kept kitty litter in the trunk of my car was that years before my dad told me to and I vaguely remember the rationale being something about traction. Now, it could've been an old habit of my dad's from rear-wheel drive days or that he figured I might need to pour it on snow or ice should my tires get stuck. The point is, I thought I knew so I stopped asking. Once I told myself "I know," learning anything more on the topic ceased.

Saying "I know" is a sure-fire way to stop learning in its tracks. We've just assured our brains no further effort is needed. Shut down the curiosity machine - time to divert energy to other ruminations like, "what's for dinner?" or "what species is Baby Yoda?" And yet, we use those two words or variations of them so much. When asked if we need directions or help, our first inclination is to reply, "No thanks. I got this." Someone shares a fact - enlighting, trivial, or banal - and we say, "I know. Right!"

Why? Why is our tendency to appear more knowledgeable than we are? Why are we so quick to short the mental exploration into the unknown? Is it that we think our curiosity will be perceived as a lack of competence? Maybe it's our brains' way of protecting us. After all, learning requires neurons to fire along new pathways - that takes work! But, think of the consequences of not keeping our minds open to possibilities! How many opportunities, revelations, and innovations have been left to languish - untapped gold a foot deeper than the miner dug! How many eager ideators have walked away rebuffed by someone else's "I know."

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Leaders, the three words we must all be OK saying are "I don't know." They are scary words for many reasons. They reveal our vulnerability - the reality that we do not possess all answers. They humble us to our humanity - our need for and dependence on others. We loathe admitting we do not know for fear we may not seem confident or credible.

Here is the truth. Our credibility comes more from the questions we ask than from the information we spout. People do not care what we know until they know how much we care. We demonstrate that caring when we tune our ears and open our minds to what others have to say. Seeking first to understand before trying to be understood. The place where our expertise ends is the starting line for another's brilliance to run free. Saying those three scary words, "I don't know," unleashes a torrent of learning, sharing, and growth for you and the people in your care. Be brave leaders - dare to not know!

About the Author

For the last 29 years, it’s been a joy to deliver learning that equips people to perform at their best.

I love the art and science of learning. It's a delight creating fun, challenging, effective facilitated, self-paced, and blended learning. My secret sauce is a mix of neuroscience, narratives, and playfulness that produces rich learning journeys. Learners enjoy, engage, and get equipped through exploration, discovery, play, practice, reflection, feedback, and immediate application. I believe serious learning happens when we don’t take ourselves so seriously! It's a blast to design learning learners love and watch them flourish as a result!

Ways I contribute...

Performance consulting Learning strategy Instructional design  Learner-centered facilitation Change management - strategy and implementation

Sampling of Results...

Currently designing distributed learning. Developing phenomenal blended journeys that surprise, delight, and equip. Choosing media to meet outcomes and create challenging fun experiences for participants and facilitators. Designed a “MasterClass”-style highly engaging and entertaining orientation experience currently being used by a Fortune 50 client to onboard people around the world Crafted an escape-room style orientation for a Fortune 50 client that exceeds new hire expectations, lives up to the brand promise, increases retention and speeds time to productivity Transformed several traditional training events into blended learning journeys that better equip leaders to contribute to business priorities. Focus areas included career and leadership development for underrepresented populations as well as new promotes transitioning to higher career levels  Partnered with a dynamic team to design game-based and real-time immersive simulations coupled with a cohort-based coaching model to prepare thousands of newly promoted executives to lead their organization 

Areas of Expertise: Career & leadership development | Onboarding | D&I | Relationship Management | Storytelling

4 Comments
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My team of facilitators and trainers are currently working on removing I know from our communications. We talked about replacing it with, "That's interesting. Why do you think..." or "What could that mean for..." in an attempt to show that we are also always learning more.
What we don't want to loose is the validation of the learners experience. This is why we also focus on using "That makes sense" or "Of course that bothers/excited you." to not diminish the learner's experience.
True enablement - not only undoing the habit but also replacing it with better options. Thanks for sharing!
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Great article, "I know" can definitely be the enemy of "I want to learn".
That's a great way to put it "I know is the enemy of I want to learn" - makes for a good t-shirt or mug! Hey, you might be on to something...
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