When Knowing What Happened Kills Our Development

Once upon a time, I had the opportunity to work with a subcontractor who produced a major event for our organization. Just about everything that could go wrong did. Video screens were blurry. Lighting was poor. Audio was unevenly distributed throughout the room. Even a fabricated visual element planned to illustrate a major teaching point failed the night before the big talk and had to be taken out of the presentation. When the time came for us to debrief the event with Terry (not his real name), the production company's leader, I received word that he wasn't interested in having the discussion. Why? He "didn’t think it would do any good."

No good? Really? No good at all?

Maybe Terry was emotionally worn out and just wanted it to be over. (We could relate to that; we felt the same way.) Maybe he was scared to hear the feedback as he already knew we weren’t happy. Many leaders would push through such hurdles, though, in order to get the feedback. So why not this leader in this situation? Answer: Because the errors were too obvious.

Obvious or Not

The numerous and unquestionable blunders during the event tempted Terry to believe he understood perfectly our biggest disappointments. When he gave into that temptation, it destroyed a great opportunity for him to grow as a leader.

On the surface, it looked like the lack of performance in the moment of the event was the primary issue. But it wasn't. Our biggest disappointments lived outside the bounds of the event. Terry's defensive attitude and lack of willingness to take responsibility for the final results were bigger concerns for us than fuzzy projection screens and subpar audio. These attitudinal shortcomings were the real reasons we didn't hire him or his company again. The subtle pride of believing he already understood all that he needed to know led Terry to take a pass on the debrief. In doing so, he and his organization never received the most important information available and the opportunity to grow from it.

Believing we have all the information needed to completely understand a given situation is common. We have all been persuaded by logical explanations, previous experiences, and mountains of data to believe we understand all that needs to be understood. In such moments, we are actually being slyly seduced by our egos. This seduction doesn't announce its presence. Like many of life's most effective and detrimental temptations, it woos us into submission while keeping its very existence hidden from our consciousness. It's hiddenness is what helps make it so lethal and perpetual.

Though pursuing and receiving feedback beyond our own perspectives can be annoying and difficult, it almost always yields benefits. Feedback we agree with affirms our initial understanding and raises our confidence. Feedback we disagree agree with is also valuable as it shows us how others see the situation. Feedback we don't see coming is often the most valuable of all as it opens our eyes to entirely new perspectives.

As long as we allow only our own understandings for why things are the way they are to tell the whole story, we will never have the full picture. When we allow ourselves to be seduced by this subtle pride, our opportunity to become better leaders through feedback that increases self-awareness and the ability to make well-informed decisions disappears.

The Single Question Antidote

The healing elixir for the temptress of subtle pride that tells us we need only our own perspectives to understand all that is going on comes in the form of a single question:

"What else don't I know about this person or situation?"

When we consistently and humbly ask this question of ourselves and others, we enable both our leadership development and better decision making. Asking this question, while temporarily suspending our current beliefs about situations and people, protects us from missing valuable information.

To reach our potential as leaders, we need to resist the subtle pride that tempts us to believe we perfectly understand people and situations even when (especially when!) the answers look obvious. If we can proactively seek feedback in all circumstances, consistently create safe environments for followers to share their perspectives, and repeatedly ask the question,"What else don't I know about this person or situation?" we will be setting ourselves up for growth, learning, and leadership success.

Share Your Thoughts: When have you or a leader you've observed gained valuable insights by staying inquisitive even when the answers seemed obvious? When have you or a leader you've observed missed an important opportunity to learn because you thought you already knew everything there was to know about a person or situation? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.

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