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Effective Leaders Build the Best Teams by Not Always Having All the Answers

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Larisa Owen
May 13, 2020 

Leaders who “know it all” always have an answer, never admit to errors made and may eventually lose the trust of their staff who see repeated misrepresentation of their work. The same can be said for staff who tell leadership that they continuously have all the knowledge to answer all of their questions. The results are a loss of belief in the vision and mission of the organization. Ineffective leaders create chaos when giving misinformation to co-workers and staff. They are revealing their own insecurity, rather than building credibility. If staff have all the answers and you aren’t successfully meeting project objectives, you probably have an issue with lack of accountability.

Showing value to your team with the response of, “I don’t know but I will find out and get right back to you,” brings the power of precise knowledge but, more importantly, integrity. The right answers may take time; an immediate response may lose trust by being data-poor and fact-free. Don’t miss the opportunity to engage staff by telling them you don’t know or that you are not sure. Encourage staff through your own example by telling them you want their help to find the right answer—not the most immediate response.

Gaps in knowledge should not be hidden, but instead be used to bring about engagement. Better responses include, “I don’t know, what do you think?” or, “That’s a good question, and we should work together to get the answers for the whole team.” Good facilitators of a group process sometimes say, “I believe the answer to that question is in this room, based on your combined knowledge and experience. Let’s see if we can find that answer together.”

When a leader shows they are willing to admit they don’t have all the answers, the leader can foster a team that recognizes better decisionmaking and greater trust within the team. If staff have all the answers and you aren’t successfully meeting project objectives, you probably have an issue with lack of accountability.

How can we educate leaders and staff members to fight their natural tendency to jump in with an answer on every question? How can we ensure staff remain confident in admitting errors made, not always having every answer and working together to problem solve?

What can staff or leaders do when confronted with a know-it-all who doesn’t have these skills? The responses that make the most sense would seem to involve three basic strategies:

  1. Challenging the claim: “What’s the basis for that?” “Where is the evidence?” or, “Could you give me an example,” may all elicit irritation or worse from a leader or a staff member, and these responses should be used with care. But some people who believe they have all the answers melt quickly when asked for the evidence.
  2. Testing the “answer”: A claim that a change has been made in an organization which staff know to be untrue is sometimes best handled by a request asking how the change could be demonstrated in practice.
  3. Leading the witness: Some people who are convinced they know everything may respond with more baloney if you lead them on with responses such as, “Could you tell us more about x?” A leader who believes he has all the answers may keep digging into incredibility with more and more claims that become easier to disprove—or which disprove themselves by being naked of factual basis.

Organizations where these tactics are necessary are not happy places. But the good news is that leaders who keep providing “answers” without backing eventually lose their own backing over time.


Author: Larisa Owen, Ph.D., M.B.A. [email protected]. Dr. Owen is a Program Director with Children and Family Futures.  Dr. Owen works on several project including leading the Veterans and Military Families (VMF) projects within the organization, including planning and implementation of veterans treatment courts (VTC) evaluation and technical assistance involving families in the VTC.  Dr. Owen has extensive experience evaluating the effectiveness of program implementation, program enhancement, and evaluation methods for state and national programs including training and evaluation of collaborative programs. Dr. Owen received her Bachelor of Science in Criminology and Legal Studies, holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration, and has a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Law

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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