This post is part of our Monthly-ish Tips series.

A cat (an arrogant one)

A little over four years ago I wrote a Weekly Tip called, “Why it’s a problem that you know stuff.” I stumbled across it the other day and realized now is a really good time for a reprise, especially as we all struggle with massive amounts of uncertainty in our lives.

As a recovering IT consultant, I spent many years a world where knowing stuff was paramount. Having now dedicated nearly three decades to exploring what it takes to have extraordinary client relationships—fourteen of which have been focused specifically on trust-based relationships—I have come to see that knowing stuff can be a big problem.

Knowing stuff is an especially big problem right now because it’s a way we all naturally guard against uncertainty, ambiguity, and our own fears. (Cue the “uh oh.”)

There are serious downsides to knowing stuff about stuff and also knowing stuff about people. What follows are some (modified) specifics.

Here are at least four downsides to knowing stuff about stuff:

  1. It becomes our “go to” in times of stress. We double down on the more rational side of the trust equation, which pulls our focus from the two biggest trust de-railers for us all right now: high self-orientation and low intimacy. So we lead with telling and asserting instead of caring and listening.
  2. It cements our assumptions. Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for, interpret, and recall things in a way that validates our own beliefs. The more we know, the more biased we tend to be. And the more certainty we seek, the more we are driven to validate our own beliefs.
  3. It stops us from taking risks. If I already know something (or think I do), I don’t have put myself in the vulnerable position of admitting I’m actually not nearly as sure as I’d like. Paradoxically, confessing ignorance with clarity and confidence is one of the best ways to strengthen credibility. My favorite line from Charlie Green’s blog on this topic: “Technical knowledge can always be looked up; personal courage and integrity are in far shorter supply.” And if ever there were a time for personal courage and integrity …
  4. It impedes curiosity. When we know stuff, we’re less likely to inquire or wonder or muse. Yet being curious is not only a hallmark trait of a trusted advisor, but the ticket to all those silver linings that are hidden in the dark clouds of crisis.

There are at least two downsides to knowing stuff about people:

  1. It puts them in a box. Knowing others means we’re more likely to confine them to past experiences. Assuming you know how someone will act or react is a profound act of arrogance even in the best of times—one that stops us from interacting in the very way that might actually invite a totally different response. Catch yourself quickly if you find you’re thinking or saying, “I should/shouldn’t say/do ________ because he/she will respond by ________.”
  2. It stagnates the relationship. When we know someone, we’re less inclined to discover something new about them, and then we don’t grow together. Think of a long-term personal partnership, where so much richness lies in simultaneously getting our partner and being willing to be surprised by our partner. Our best work relationships are no different.

Coaching guru Michael Bungay Stanier asserted in a webinar I watched last week that we’re all operating at sub-par levels right now. (Thank you, Michael, for normalizing what now seems really obvious but has been really hard to admit to myself.) It’s no wonder, really, when you consider how much our brains crave certainty and how much brain power it takes to process how little of that we have right now.

The challenge for us all is to satiate those understandable cravings in other ways.

Make It Real

This week, seek other ways to increase your feelings of certainty and control. You might break a complex work or home project into small steps, schedule a recurring meeting to check in on expectations (the recurrence alone will help), or simply clean out a messy drawer.

Learn More

Read about the brain’s desire for certainty and what to do about it in David Rock’s seminal work from the NeuroLeadership Journal. And for this week’s humor break, listen to the song one high school principal wrote to share his feelings about the pandemic.

Image by Dreams&Stuffs via Flickr


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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).