Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Paradox of Learning-Can you say "I don't know?"

The paradox of learning is that the leader must be just as proficient at "un-learning"...the process of challenging assumptions and mental she is at learning.
All too often leaders find themselves in a position where they think they should know the answer to a question, problem, or dilemma  because of their position in the organization.  In some cultures there is an expectation that leaders "know" because of their position.

My point in this blog is that if you think you "know" the answer to a challenge because of your position or act like you do because others expect you to, this constitutes a "learning disability".
Learning takes place when there is a gap between what is known and what is unknown.   Recognizing this gap creates tension and as human beings we have an impulse to close the gap and resolve the tension. Learning is the process to close the gap.  If the leader thinks they "know" or "should know" because of their position there is no tension, and hence no learning.

To be sure the leader cannot profess ignorance about everything.  One of the most important factors in generating trust....what causes men and women to the confidence that their leader knows what they are doing.  In fact, there is some evidence that in extreme conditions people will follow whoever it is who demonstrates competence regardless of their rank in the hierarchy.

Great leaders aren't afraid to say "I don't know". They aren't afraid to create a little tension by doing so.  They are confident enough to publicly challenge their own assumptions and mental models...reveal their thinking and articulate what causes them to come to certain conclusions.  This encourages staff to voice points of view that otherwise might not be voiced.

To be sure it's uncomfortable for the leader to behave in this way.  In Professor Michael Roberto's blog he quotes Dr. Peter Carruthers of Los Alamos National Laboratory. “There’s a special tension to people who are constantly in the position of making new knowledge."  Great leaders embrace the tension and discomfort that comes with saying "I don't know".

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