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Knowing When You Don’t Know

Followers can experience enormous psychological pressure to look good around a leader and provide answers to questions “off the cuff.” Our culture values the expert who can spout off opinions more than the sage who contemplates.

Courageous followers regard the act of advising as a trust. They differentiate between what they know factually, what they intuit, and what they don’t know at all. They don’t overstate their case.

“I’ve researched this and can tell you unequivocally that ______ .”

“I’ve met with them and know they feel strongly about that so I advise against doing it.”

“All I can tell you is what my gut says.”

“My feeling is to go with ________ but I’d want to run it through a full decision-making process.”

“I don’t have a clear sense about that—let me think about it and get back to you.”

“That’s not my area of experience. Have you consulted _______ , who has worked a lot with that?”

If we are close to a leader we can serve as a sounding board, reflecting back what we hear without pretending expertise we lack:

“You sound uncomfortable with that idea. Are you?”

“From what I know of you, you tend to be cautious. Are you being overly cautious in this situation?”

“My sense is that you can trust him. Is there anything making you feel otherwise?”

“From what I’ve heard you say, your confidence seems justified.”

“There’s something that doesn’t ring true. Can you clarify the situation a bit more?”

In this way we can help a leader think through difficult issues or prepare for critical events despite our lack of expertise on a particular subject.

Courageous followers are confident enough of their value to the leader that they do not need to inflate that value with pretended expertise.