Ever noticed that some managers believe they are supposed to know everything about their area of responsibility?  They don’t usually last very long.   Often their organizations don’t either.

Great managers and leaders realize that they can never know everything.  And they’re comfortable with that.  Poor managers feel that asking questions is a sign of weakness. That makes them uncomfortable. 

When discussing this issue, I’ve had otherwise smart people tell me things like:

  • “The troops need to feel that there’s someone with their hand on the tiller. They’d be concerned if they realized that we don’t have a great plan that considers every eventuality.”
  • “If I show that I don’t know something, people are going to realize that they may know more than I do.  They’ll lose respect for me.”
  • “When there’s a problem, I’ll hear about it anyway – no sense in creating havoc when things are going along fine.”

At some level, these bosses feel that the rest of the folks they work with are a lesser species, or at least much lower on the IQ scale. They think the ‘lower level people” can’t handle the truth that no one is infallible.  In most cases, these bosses think they’ve made it to where they are because they do things better, are smarter, and can figure things out much more quickly than those with whom they work. This attitude will nearly always doom them to failure, while ensuring that many of those around them are going down with them.

History is littered with once-great looking leaders tanking their organizations or businesses or even companies. In nearly all cases it was due to the arrogance of the boss. (e.g.: Bill Ford of the now flailing auto company) On the other hand, there are many really good examples of crappy situations being turned around by leaders who weren’t inhibited by any superiority complexes and who spent a lot of time asking questions to help them make the right changes in direction.

The great management guru Tom Peters called this management by wandering around.  He said, and I’ve found it to be a truism, that you can tell the best organizations by how much time the bosses spend outside of their meetings and offices talking to people.  What a concept – actually asking for the advice of those at lower levels on the org charts! 

I love the story of Anne Mulcahy, the chair and CEO of Xerox, a self-described ‘concensus manager’ (a style much more typical of women than men by the way), who took over when the company was $18B in debt and the shareholders wanted to sell it in pieces because it didn’t seem ‘fixable.’  She spent a whole year asking anyone and everyone what they thought should be done. She asked other companies’ heads, her salespeople, the engineers, customer service guys – anyone.  And now that company is regarded as having a great future by many pundits. Plus, she’s pretty well regarded by her employees.  A nice save.

It’s an axiom of management: Most leaders will tend to look upward to the next level of management for positive reinforcement and direction while at the same time ignoring those below them.  Doesn’t matter what level one is at – most individuals will say that, “if only the people up there would ask for some advice, we could tell them how to fix it.” 

Kind of ironic.

                                                – john

                                              Career Coach