When we're working with others in a differentiated authority role--leaders with employees, teachers with students, even--to an extent--coaches with clients--we tend to provide too much information. Leaders can provide so much structure and background and context that it makes it harder for their team to do the work. Teachers can fill their syllabi with so many readings and their class sessions with so many activities that their students learn less. And while an executive coach isn't a conventional authority figure, I see moments where I'm saying or doing so much that I'm getting in the way and holding my client back.
Why do we do this? And what can we do instead? Three possibilities:
First, providing information is a form of caring and an effort to demonstrate our worth as leaders. We care about the people we're working with, and we want them to know that. We we want to feel competent in our roles and to know that we're adding value. But the excess information that we're shoveling at people is a proxy for these qualities, not the thing itself.
Instead, we can be more direct. We can tell people, "I care about you, and I'm invested in your success." We can say this outright, and we can demonstrate it in innumerable small gestures--without overwhelming people with information. And we can ask them to provide explicit feedback: "How am I doing? How am I helping you? And might I be even more helpful?" (But note that feedback is stressful, and we have to make it easier for others to provide it.)
Also, providing information is a safety belt for us as leaders--if things go wrong, we can avoid blame and finger-pointing by emphasizing how much information we had made available in advance. "I told you about that!" But while safety measures create floors, preventing terrible falls, they also impose ceilings, limiting how far and wide people might venture on their own.
Instead, to help people truly achieve their full potential, we have to accept some risk. While creating sufficient safety is a critical task for a leader, so is encouraging appropriate risk-taking. If we insure that things never go wrong, we also inevitably limit others' achievements. (And if we always err on the side of safety, who are we really protecting?)
Finally, providing information is an all-too-transparent effort to show off how much we know as leaders, how wise and sage we are. This may stem from pride and hubris--or it may stem from fear and anxiety. Early in our careers as leaders, we may feel a need to cover up our ignorance--and later on our experience may blind us to the fact that we're still ignorant, no matter how much we've learned.
Instead, acknowledge what Simon Wardley has called the Three Stages of Expertise, and remember that true wisdom lies in understanding how little we know. Until then, we're actually hazards masquerading as experts. Paradoxically, I've found that being humble in the face of my ignorance is what enables me to truly tap into and own my expertise.
Photo by Brandon Shea. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.