Why leaders should play dumb

When you lead a team of people, they will expect you have all the answers. But you don’t always have the right answers. And that’s ok.

If you hired good people, they should have better ideas than you, which is why you hired them. So how do you get their ideas out on the table? How do you build their confidence so they will take the risk and make their own decisions? How can you stop being the company problem solver?

You play dumb.

Remember the boss I mentioned — the best boss I ever worked for? He seemed to be as dumb as a box of rocks sometimes (even though I know he wasn’t)! If I went to him for direction about a particular issue, he would look puzzled and say, “I don’t know, what do you think we should do?”

For a long time, I didn’t understand why he did this. I came to his office to get his opinion. Didn’t he know the right answer? He was the boss! He was supposed to have the answers! If I knew what to do, I would just do it!

But he asked, so I’d answer. In fact, I learned that I had better not walk into his office without having a solution that I could propose. And you know, I was surprised how often he’d just say, “Yep, I think that will work just fine.” He didn’t always say that; sometimes he would give me some ideas of his own to add to mine. But usually he ratified what I was already thinking.

It wasn’t until much later that I caught on to what his “dumb act” was all about.

You see, I went to him because I wanted him to make the decision, but that wasn’t good for either one of us. He would spend all his time as a problem solver instead of the leader that he was, and I wouldn’t have the confidence to make my own decisions, which is why he hired me. In most cases, my analysis and decision was right (or at least good enough) and by ratifying it, he helped build my confidence. When that wasn’t the case, he offered his advice but always put the decision back in my court. “What do you think we should do?”

This “dumb act” really enabled a terrific relationship between the two of us. I knew that my problems would remain my problems. But if I needed the benefit of his experience or some confidence in my approach, I would bring my analysis in there and go over it with him. For him, it meant that he could see my best thinking before putting his ideas forward. He could judge my maturity in my job, and yet he still had the opportunity to chime in with his opinion if he thought it would improve the outcome. Best of all, instead of being the problem solver, he got to be the CEO.

How do you get out of your team’s way so they can gain confidence? What problems are you engaging in that are keeping you from being the CEO?

 

Comments

  1. Great story. But a boss should not try to play dumb. The boss should tell employees that it is their job to decide what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, and that the boss’ responsibility is to support them and provide whatever they need to do the very best job possible.

    • Ben;

      I find that it’s easy for bosses to give employees the “right” answer when they encounter an obstacle. The suggestion is to holster your answer gun and let the employees come forward with their ideas first. For some bosses this seems “dumb”. “I know the answer, why don’t I give it to them?” but the “smart” response of giving the subordinate the answer just trains them to come back to you with all the questions.

      So sometimes the “dumb” response turns out to be “smart” in the end.

  2. Great story. But a boss should not try to play dumb. The boss should tell employees that it is their job to decide what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, and that the boss’ responsibility is to support them and provide whatever they need to do the very best job possible.

    • Ben;

      I find that it’s easy for bosses to give employees the “right” answer when they encounter an obstacle. The suggestion is to holster your answer gun and let the employees come forward with their ideas first. For some bosses this seems “dumb”. “I know the answer, why don’t I give it to them?” but the “smart” response of giving the subordinate the answer just trains them to come back to you with all the questions.

      So sometimes the “dumb” response turns out to be “smart” in the end.

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