What You Don’t Know Is More Than You Realize

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Business owners often complain that they don’t know about everything happening in the business. It’s s a truth many leaders don’t realize: the higher you go, the less you know!

For various reasons, the more senior a leader is, the less he or she knows about what is going on in their organization. Sure, they’re well versed on the day-to-day operation of the company, and they probably have a broader view than subordinates. But, the more senior a leader is, the less likely they know about issues like personnel matters, problems in subordinate divisions, small problems with suppliers, and the host of other things that they were aware of when in a more junior position.

I first learned this lesson in the Air Force. A person in my squadron, call him Nick, had come to me to tell me about a medical situation. The procedure involved major neural surgery and therefore entailed a high level of risk, but doctors had told him that there was also a high probability of success. The surgery was not urgent, but was necessary. He said he felt pretty good about his decision to do the surgery and would see me afterwards. The doctors later told me the surgery was uneventful and they don’t know why he died in recovery. After the funeral, I was speaking with several of his co-workers when one of them mentioned that Nick did not think his chances were good and he most likely would not survive the surgery. I was shocked and mentioned that he had told me the opposite. They said Nick had told me that because he felt I had enough to worry about and didn’t need to be concerned about him.

I began to observe that there were other things I didn’t know or mistakenly believed. Reflecting on that, I also realized there were things I kept from my boss as well. There are three reasons team members keep the boss in the dark.

  1. They feel the boss is too busy for a particular issue. They believe they can handle it and the boss doesn’t need to be bothered with it. That’s often true.
  2. They do not want the boss to feel they can’t handle a particular situation.
  3. They fear the boss’ reaction to the problem, either because the boss has a volatile temper, or a fear that additional work will stem from the boss’s knowledge of the situation.

As I observed my own situation, I realized there really was a lot going on that I didn’t have knowledge of and that this wasn’t necessarily bad. In fact, as a leader progresses to higher and more responsible levels, it becomes impossible to know everything and subordinates are actually correct in shielding you from a lot of the day-to-day things that happen in an organization. But who could determine what was important for me and what wasn’t? Of course that’s not a perfect science, but there are a few techniques that make it a little easier.

  1. Surround yourself with good leaders, and be open and honest with them about their responsibilities and how you expect them to carry out those responsibilities.
  2. Give those leaders a high level of trust and let them do their jobs. You need them to handle many things you don’t have time for.
  3. Resist the temptation to ceremoniously remove heads when things don’t go the way you want. It may be momentarily satisfying to disembowel a team member over some infraction or problem, but the long-term result is a gun-shy team member less likely to be open the next time a situation develops.

There is probably a lot going on that you aren’t really aware of. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it is something you need to understand and manage. Pick good leaders, train them well, and hold them accountable. They will lead their areas and you’ll sleep a little better at night knowing that what you don’t know probably won’t hurt you.

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