Escaping “Knowing and Telling” Leadership

Industrial Age leadership programmed leaders who would know the answers, tell the team what to do and get them to do it. We would say about these people that they can “make things happen.” The structure was biased toward doing.

The idea is that knowing and telling are linked. The person who knows the right answers earns the right to tell the group what to do, and the person who is telling the group what to do better know the right answers. In this model, leaders are viewed as decision makers.

The appeal of “knowing-telling” is that it seems faster – not much delay in deliberation just make things happen. The problem with “knowing-telling” are that it is fragile. Errors made by leaders are more likely to propagate uncorrected through the organization. And it is unstainable because it is optimized for getting stuff done, not developing a team that will make good decisions.

Additionally, “knowing-telling” couples organizational performance very closely with the personal decision making ability of the current leader. As long as the boss is right, things go well. Finally, the “telling” part of “knowing-telling” is what allows people to delink their personal responsibility from bad corporate practices – the classic excuse for bad behavior is “I was told to do it.”

My personal leadership journey took me through all 4 quadrants of the 2×2 knowing-telling matrix when I was assigned to the USS Santa Fe at the last moment, a type of submarine so new I had never been on. After vowing to stop telling my officers and chiefs what to do, I saw an explosion of ownership, initiative, thinking, passion and fun.

We don’t recommend deliberately operating in the “not knowing” half but the idea is not tell the team what to do even if you think you know the right answer. You want to “know” but avoid “telling.”

Although it takes time, the rewards of operating in the “know-don’t tell” sector are tremendous. They inoculate the organization against the perils of “knowing-telling” and create an environment of thinking, engagement, and ownership in the team.

The challenge came later, after I felt I had learned the Santa Fe. There was a strong temptation to go back to telling. Fortunately, I had experienced first-hand the benefits of not telling and I don’t think my team would have tolerated it anyway.

Try this…the next time you are in a situation where the team is asking you for a decision, try avoiding telling them what to do. Instead, ask them what they see, know, and would do if you weren’t there.

For more insights on this issue, try watching
Leadership Nudge® 328 – “Know, Don’t Tell” and the Ladder



%d bloggers like this: