What If You Don’t Know?©

We all think we know. We certainly all want to know. We think we know what we need to do different or better. We want to know that we are on track and be aware if we are off track. We think we know (or will know) when we’re engaging in behavior that is not working or which does not serve us or our objectives. We must know, right? Therefore, if we don’t know that something’s not working, then it must BE working. Talk about some set up thinking – we believe something is working (when it’s not) and thus we can be assured that things will never change or improve! No wonder situations, people, relationships and businesses don’t improve. No wonder our outcomes don’t change for the better. No wonder!!!

I recently came across this bit of research on the topic of multitasking. In an article in the Journal of Information Systems Education, I read about a study involving the use of laptops in a 15-week management information systems class with 97 upper-division students. With the students’ consent and therefore knowledge, researchers used a spyware program that tracked the windows and page names for each software application the students ran during class time. Students were encouraged to run “productive windows” (those that related to course content). The spyware also tracked the number of “distractive windows” students ran, which included games, pictures, email, social media and web surfing. Incredibly, students had these distractive windows open 42% of the class time. Not surprisingly, students who tried to listen to the lecture while using distractive windows had significantly lower scores on homework, projects, quizzes, final exams and final course averages than students who looked at mostly productive windows. But here’s the key finding – the student population under-reported the extent of their multitasking.

In other words, the students knew that their windows were being tracked with spyware, yet they still went to “distractive windows” over 40% of the time and  they under-reported the extent of their use of these distracting windows. The students did not know how much they were distracted and, thus, they underestimated the extent of their distraction.

The same is true for all of us. We rarely (if ever) can accurately assess our thoughts, choices or actions that are counterproductive, distracting, or ineffective. We think we know (and therefore would make changes if they needed to be made), but we don’t know, so we underestimate our own need for change. No wonder there are so many disconnects and differing perceptions between what we think about ourselves and what others observe and experience. The problem is that as long as we think we know (but we actually don’t), the chances of identifying improvements or changes and then making them are pretty slim.

Rather than mistakenly thinking that you know the nature or the extent of your improvement opportunities, embrace these two key principles:

  1. Don’t accept your own self-assessment – Seek out and invite feedback and assessment from others (both personally and professionally);
  2. Assume that your self-assessment is missing some things and underestimating others – However you think you’re doing, you are most likely overestimating what you’re doing well and underestimating what you need to improve.

These two principles are essential to being an authentic and conscious leader.

Jim Collins famously said that “the enemy of great is good,” but perhaps the greatest enemy of great is the false belief that I accurately know, will know or even can know what I need to change, improve or do differently. Leadership certainly involves trusting yourself, but leadership and livingshipTM also requires that you not trust yourself to have perfect self-assessment and performance evaluation, especially when it comes to identifying ways of thinking or acting that might be getting in the way of your performance. Instead of believing you always know, be willing to be vulnerable and solicit and thoughtfully accept the feedback, perceptions and assessments others can give you.

What You Dont Know


  1. John Froelich says:

    WOW! What a super, hit-the-nail-on-the-head article. I had the opportunity to witness this first hand in my life this week….and it wasn’t pretty. Usually, the truth is a tough pill to swallow.

    Keep up the great work. It is more inspiring, to more people, than you may ever know. And I think I know that for sure…..I think?


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