By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
Do you remember having a teacher who insisted that he or she never made a mistake?
I did. I’m guessing she figured she owed it to the profession or for the sake of classroom control. Whatever her reasoning – if any -- she was wrong. Dead wrong.
There are some mistakes you just can’t come back from. Yes, they’re the ones you don’t admit. I wonder if my teacher ever learned that.
I remember the day like it was yesterday.
She was writing on the blackboard and she misspelled a word. As she continued to write, we began to giggle.
The sharpest ones who first noticed the mistake were the first to chuckle. But, of course, those students were also the most discreet. They giggled pretty much to themselves and the teacher didn’t take any notice.
But other students noticed. They furrowed their brows or tapped the quiet chucklers on the arm. “What’s up?” they wondered.
As news of the mistake slowly spread through the entire class, the chuckling got louder. Eventually we were laughing so loud a cadaver would have noticed. She spun and asked, “What’s so funny?”
Who would tell?
Who would be the first to tell her?
After several months in that classroom it was obvious to most every student that the better part of valor was to just sit there like a lump of driftwood. Ah, but thanks to God, every class has at least one fool who will rush into any danger.
“You misspelled a word,” one of those fearless folk declared.
If it hadn’t taken her a moment to discern which word, her response might have had at least a little bit of credibility. But by the time she uttered it there was no way she could sell it.
“I did that just to see if you would notice,” she said, without the slightest sign of irony.
We started howling.
She didn’t like that even one little bit. So in her sternest voice she told us to shut up and move on even as she corrected her mistake.
She maintained classroom control, and before the year ended she had probably taught us a lot. But she never regained either her educational or moral authority. We couldn’t trust her to always tell us the truth anymore. So we took everything she said after that with a huge grain of salt.
What would it have cost her to just admit her mistake –and, perhaps, in an eye-opening moment of grace, even thank the student for correcting it for her?
I can tell you this: It wouldn’t have cost her the credibility she lost with all of us in that telling little moment.
Looking back, I’m grateful for that moment. In it she taught me the greatest lesson I learned that year – indeed, among the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned -- albeit quite inadvertently.
That lesson: You don’t need to always have all the answers. And if you pretend you do, your pretense will be uncovered eventually, even by the dunces in the room.
After that things will probably never be the same. You will have lost some – perhaps a lot – of your authority just as you have sacrificed your credibility for the sake of your ego.
A good way to get off to a great start in this still relatively new year is to repeat after me: “I don’t know.”
Those three little words are very powerful.
Stick to that response when it’s the truth and you will never lose your moral authority. In fact, you will increase it. You might even be considered more reliable and dependable than ever before – certainly more than the others in the room who pretend they know and make a guess or just make up answers.
If you want to really supercharge your standing, you can add these four words: “But I’ll find out.”
If you’re a leader
If you’re a positional leader, admitting your ignorance when it’s the truth is the key to building trust and teamwork. Trust your team with the truth and they will trust you. Then you can ask them to help you find out the best answer and they will do their best to come through for you.
Steve Keating, a leadership and sales guru, says: “Authentic leaders embrace the unknown. They live in ambiguity. They know what they know and perhaps even more importantly, they know what they don’t know. And they are completely comfortable with not having all the answers.
“They know that ambiguity leads to opportunity. When they don’t know their answer is ‘I don’t know…yet.’ Their thought process in that moment is not on what is, it’s on what could be. They realize that not knowing is the beginning of the learning process.”
Keating says that “authentic leaders know they will never know it all. They also know that they don’t have to. They use the knowledge and experience of their teams to fill in their gaps. They also don’t expect anyone in their organization to have all the answers and they willingly fill in the knowledge gaps of their team.
“It’s only by embracing what you don’t know that you can know more,” he explains. “If you think you know it all, or think you must convince others that you do, you rob yourself of the opportunity to grow.”
Stephen Covey would call this a “win-win.” And he would be absolutely right.
Pretending you know more than you do is a bad strategy. It’s like having your bluff called in a high stakes poker game -- and then raising the stakes.
Don’t do it. Instead, repeat after me those three powerful little words …