If you are a newly promoted manager who feels the pressure to have all the answers expected of you from day one, don’t despair. You are not alone.
A new role comes with a whole new set of expectations. There is an implicit — and perhaps explicit — social contract with your team to show the way, prove you care, and ensure stability and clarity. Almost all organizations put a premium on competence and expertise. As you are trying to orient yourself to your new role and responsibilities, you might be feeling the pressure to mask those awkward (even if unfounded) feelings of incompetence or inadequacy; to pretend you have the answers, even when you don’t.
In the research for our book, Not Knowing: The Art of Turning Uncertainty into Opportunity, we spoke to many managers who struggled with feelings of incompetence as they faced challenges associated with their
role. They feared looking foolish; losing their authority; letting people down; even being fired.
In a complex world, no one person can possibly have all the answers. You will inevitably face challenges that are hard to define, let alone to solve – even after years of management experience.
And yet we’re wired to feel uncomfortable with uncertainty. Neuroscience research has shown that threats to our certainty can result in neurological pain that’s similar to a physical attack. Even when we are not feeling threatened by uncertainty, researchers at Dartmouth have found that a neural network in the left hemisphere of our brain is “always looking for order and reason, even when they don’t exist.”
1. Become more aware of your relationship to knowledge. Work on increasing your awareness of your relationship with knowledge and identify your blind spots around confidence and certainty. Ask yourself these questions:
- How important is it for you to be seen as competent in everything you do? How realistic is it that you’ll know everything?
- What expertise do you already have? Does it help or hinder you as a new manager?
- What are your default behaviors when you come to the edge of your skills? How do you recognize the limitations of your expertise?
As you mull over these questions, reflect on the tension you feel between the expectations placed on you and the desire to be seen as capable and successful in a new role.
2. Exploit your freshness as an advantage. Being a beginner can be an advantage. In our book we call it “emptying your cup,” coined after the famous phrase by the Zen monk and teacher, Shunryu Suzuki : “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” As a beginner, you can allow a fresh perspective to emerge. This is particularly useful when you need to make sense of a challenging situation, tackle a complex problem, or come up with new solutions or innovations.
Christian Busch PhD, Associate Director at the London School of Economics Innovation Lab, has studied modern micro-credit, mobile banking, and micro-saving — all intriguing innovations. He points out that these have all come out of contexts where there was no previous infrastructure or conception of how things should be done. These examples illustrate how a “don’t know” mind-set can trigger innovation without historical baggage or existing path dependencies.
3. Say “I don’t know” more often. While expectations on managers do vary globally by culture, role, and industry, different strategies can be deployed that allow you to admit ignorance, uncertainty, or ambivalence and not lose credibility.
Start by opening up a conversation with your team to set their expectations. Discuss the benefits and challenges associated with being forthright about what knowledge you lack individually and as a team. This gives you the opportunity to renegotiate people’s expectations that you should have all the answers. Allowing room for doubt opens up space for learning, growth, and creativity.
In our book, we tell the story of a new manager who found himself leading a new team after a restructuring. Feeling out of his depth and anxious about his new responsibilities, he took the risk of sharing his feelings of insecurity. He confided in his team that he did not know how to deal with every facet of the situation and had more questions than answers.
“The message was: I trust you, I respect you — and they got it,” he says. “Sharing how I felt opened up enough space for them to share their own ideas. Everyone had the same reaction to the changes: insecurity, self-doubt … it was a shared experience that galvanized the team.”
To become more comfortable with saying “I don’t know,” consider some low-risk situations where you can practice saying it. How do you manage the expectations of your manager and reports? How can you create a safer space for your team to admit that they don’t have all the answers, either?
4. Stay with questions longer. In most organizations, it’s uncomfortable to keeping asking questions rather than settling on the first answer.
The higher the confusion and uncertainty, the more attractive quick and easy answers become. Staying with questions develops our tolerance and increases our capacity to engage with the unknown. It also provides us with more information about what is going on and what our options may be.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke encourages us to: “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” Focus on developing a culture of ongoing inquiry within your team by rewarding curiosity and questioning. That way, it’s not threatening or exposing when someone doesn’t have the answer – even when that person is you.