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The Words Many Managers Are Afraid to Say

| April 5, 2011

by Jim Bruce

A few weeks ago, one of the Harvard Business Review Blogs contained a short post by Linda Hill and Kent Lineback with the eye-catching title “The Words Many Managers Are Afraid to Say”.  Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor Business Administration at Harvard Business School.  Kent Lineback spent many years as a manager and an executive in business and government.   They are the coauthors of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader (HBR Press, 2011).

The post begins with a question:  “When was the last time you said words like – 

‘I don’t know.’

‘I was wrong.’

‘Would you help me?’

‘Could you explain this to me?  I don’t understand.’

– to people who work for you?”

Most likely, not recently.  No one of us likes to admit error or ignorance especially to our staff or those who look up to us as authority figures or who  respect us.

Hill and Lineback say that an inability to recognize and admit openly when you lack knowledge or have made a mistake makes us less effective in two ways:

1.  It keeps us from learning.  As you advance in your career, you soon reach a point where you cannot be an expert in the work of all those you lead.  You must learn how to lead those who know more than you do and who know they know more.  It’s only by admitting you don’t know that you can learn. 

2.  Acknowledging error or ignorance is an issue of trust.  The foundation of your ability to influence others is their trust in you, a belief that you will do the right thing.  Pretending that you know more than you do, failing to recognize and draw upon the expertise of others is a good way to keep people from trusting you and respecting your judgment.

In closing their posting, Hill and Lineback do note that there is a fine line in this area.  You gain respect when you acknowledge your shortcomings and your willingness to learn.  However, too much of a good thing is often not good.  Too much expression of weakness, error, and uncertainity will diminish people’s trust in you.

So, find your balance and build people’s trust in you!


Have a great week.  .  .  .     jim