Learning from Everyone


It’s funny how it’s usually the meetings where you’re completely lost and haven’t a clue what’s being talked about, that you’re most reticent to ask a question. A stupid question will just expose your ignorance. Better to stay quiet and be thought a fool, than speak and remove all doubt.

And the more senior you are, the harder it is to reveal a lack of understanding or expertise in front of colleagues. Part of this is because our cultural image of great leaders is about being in control, all knowing. We’re programmed to think that asking for advice or asking for help, is an admission of weakness, instead of strength.

In the real world though, the greatest leaders are those who show humility and often vulnerability too. You can’t inspire people if you don’t connect with them. And it’s hard to connect with superhumans. They’re just too different from the rest of us.

That’s why one of the biggest things holding back leaders today is that pressure to maintain an unflappable public face. It creates distance between management and staff. It creates barriers to open conversations. And it’s an out-dated approach from a different time. A time when companies were run on top-down authoritarian leadership. Where employees did what they were told, stayed in their boxes, clocked in and out, left their soul at the door every morning to be picked up again at 5PM.

Now we live in a different world. It’s a world where education and access to information are no longer the preserve of the powerful few, but are increasingly democratised. Which means the person at the top may no longer know best. It means more people will be questioning authority and the status quo. It makes it likely that people won’t be content to keep their head down and climb the progress ladder step by step. After all, that’s what happens in the kingdom when the peasants learn to read…

And rather than seeing this as a disadvantage, the best companies are evolving to gain the benefit of a workforce with higher expectations for their jobs.

Like having reverse mentorship schemes where management buddy up with junior staff, not to appease them, or pretend to be listening, but to genuinely learn new skills and new ways of thinking.

Like abolishing performance reviews (which if we’re really honest, are more about keeping salary costs down than genuine staff development – they tend to be quite rubbish at that), and even replacing them with bottom up staff appraisals of how the company is performing and what could be improved.

There’s a lot to learn from everyone if we’re open and interested enough to want to listen. None of us is smarter than all of us – the collective knowledge of all staff will only help businesses do better. And it comes with the happy side effect of happier staff too. Motivated workers and shared responsibility for success.

The only wonder is that in 2013, this is still relatively rare practice. So there’s definitely a first mover advantage up for grabs – the best leaders will take it.

  1. I think that what you say is true but there is a fine line between being vulnerable and just looking like you don’t know what you are doing. I find it helpful to admit that I don’t know what people are talking about, but couch it in terms of being interested in finding out more. That gives the signal that you realise you don’t know everything but you are willing to learn.

    • Hi Margaret, I think you’re absolutely right. People respond to confidence in leadership and that is really important. A willingness to learn more alongside this is really what I’m advocating. Your approach sounds like a good one with that in mind – not straight out saying you haven’t a clue (as that certainly would undermine you!) but being willing to ask questions which reveal a knowledge gap. Some people become so afraid of revealing that they don’t know, that they stay quiet and then the gap widens to a point where it has escalated and it becomes even harder to start learning. I think we should all be a little easier on ourselves and not worry so much about perceptions, but instead focus on reality and equipping ourselves to do our jobs to the best of our abilities.

  2. Reblogged this on Leadership Musings of a Skeptical Positivist and commented:
    Along the lines of my blog post about the dangers of “smartest one in the room” syndrome, here’s a wonderful reminder of the changing organizational environment where education and the internet have leveled the playing field for all those in organizations, not just those at the top. No statement rings more true than “The best companies are evolving to gain the benefit of a workforce with higher expectations for their jobs.” Take the time today to read this quick, but important message…..

  1. February 4th, 2013
  2. December 27th, 2013
    Trackback from : Top Posts of 2013 | Room435

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