How to know when you should provide answers...or just listen.

Staff Writer

You can’t be right about everything.

That’s a basic rule of leadership, and one that should come to mind often when you work around smart people in an office setting.

Having a basic understanding about how people think, how often you should stick to the facts only, what motivates people, and how to evaluate new ideas can help you stay on top of things as a leader. When you are willing to admit you are not always right, it suddenly opens up a world of understanding about your team.

Here’s how that works.

Let’s say you go into a meeting thinking you are always right. For most of us, it means you have completely lost an opportunity to hear what someone is saying. You honestly won’t care what people say or what they think, because you will be too busy being right. You might as well wear earmuffs. If a marketing rep shares an idea, you will disagree with it. If the sales manager brings up a valid point, you’re going to jump all over it.

I recently heard a good definition comparing confidence to pride. Confidence is knowing you have an extraordinary skill in one area. Pride is knowing you have an extraordinary skill in one area and then making it clear that everyone else doesn’t.

It’s a fine balance, but it comes into play so often in leadership. It’s pride the carries you into a meeting thinking you know everything. It’s confidence, empathy and understanding that carries you into that same meeting being open to the possibility that someone else on your team might have a good idea or a contrary view that proves you wrong. This curiosity gap–the chasm between being right and being open to other ideas–is what often separates a good leader from a great leader. A good leader thinks management is about being the person who is right. A great leader is someone who has the confidence to lead but the empathy to stay open to other ideas, to accept alternate views.

I recently helped produce a video where this played out in vivid fashion. We started out with one of my ideas. It was OK–good not great. Maybe it could have worked. Someone else had a better idea. Then, another person trumped that idea. Eventually, the end result was far better. It was like building a sculpture where everyone took a turn whacking away at the sandstone with a chisel. A good leader can make a pretty nice sculpture by doing everything using their own talents. A great leader can make a much better sculpture by letting everyone take part–by accepting other ideas and input.

One of the big reasons managers struggle in business is because of the always rightproblem. It’s just not possible to be right about everything, but pride and insecurity enter the equation…and kill all progress. This type of pride and dismissiveness leads to a lot of bitterness and resentment, because the rest of the team sits idle and stuffs their ideas, burying them because the “boss” has stifled all creative input. We all hate environments like that, where only the boss is able to provide value. The rest of us just sit around.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say companies–even big ones like Uber–sometimes stall and falter because one person had to be right all of the time. A good leader took the firm as far as it could go with his or her exceptional ideas. And then it all came crashing down.

Now, there is a caveat here.

Employees do want you to provide answers. It’s a fine balance, and you can go way overboard trying to get everyone else to come up with ideas. It’s an art-form, fueling the fire of discussion and communication while making sure everyone has a seat at the table. Great leaders find that balance. They know that it is partly about providing answers and offering ideas and partly about asking the team to fill in the gaps and improve on that idea.

The key is to know your employees. When do they need you to answer a question? When do they need you to listen to the answer? If you figure that you, you’ll find success.