Leaders say they want people who can thrive with uncertainty. But do they?

Learn how to say I don't know

Here’s something that shouldn’t surprise you: people often say one thing and mean something completely different. An example? “Capitalism is evil! OK, I’ll go buy a $71 million house now…” Another example? “We care deeply about talent strategy … but we can’t discuss it this week, because we have another 11 meetings about revenue projections.” Still a third? “We love big data and analytics … but could someone else deal with it, please?”

Here’s a new one, and by “new” I mean “something that’s been going on for about 50+ years:”

I’ve conducted hundreds of feedback interviews with board members and senior leaders to gather information for my coaching clients. I’ve heard repeatedly that they want their leaders to show open mindedness, agility, courage, and presence. They want leaders who can deal with uncertainty and take risks. Having an answer for everything has only come up as a fault – discussed as a by-product of close-mindedness or parochialism.

Your bullshit meter should be blaring right now, and it’ll blare more later in this post. This is one of the core tenets of leadership double-talk: people always want to find others who can “thrive with uncertainty,” yet then leaders get pissed when people don’t know answers. (Then, on surveys or in 1-on-1s, they go back to saying they want uncertainty-thrivers and they think always having an answer is a fault.) This is all right up there with people using “overqualified” as a reason to deny people jobs, even in a time when senior business leaders are saying “Well, our business needs change every day!” HINT: If your needs change every day, you can’t actually deem anyone overqualified.

Here’s how Forbes recommends saying “I don’t know:”

  • “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m anxious to find out.”
  • “Let me tell you what I know, and what I’m still learning.”
  • “That’s an important question and I don’t want to give you a half answer. Let me get back to you on that by end of day.”
  • “I can’t tell you that with certainty. I do have an informed opinion on it which is…”
  • “Sarah on my team can get you the exact numbers on that. The performance metrics I’m managing show…”
  • “That’s an interesting question. Tell me more about what’s driving it?”

Sorry, I just vomited in my mouth a few times, then started a chainsaw and put it near my scrotum.

I’ve heard all those things from managers across the last decade or so. It’s all complete BS. It just reeks of “I have no idea what I’m doing and am not even sure of my value-add in this role, but here’s a couple of sentences I can string together to get you off my back for a day or two…”

Here’s the real issue:

This is why it’s better to chase teams with self-awareness, because in that situational context you might actually get a few things done and have a good vertical relationship (managers down to employees).

Ted Bauer