The Knowing And Not-Knowing

The Knowing And Not-Knowing

Knowledge is so overrated that it has come to a point where not knowing is considered or viewed as a weakness and is experienced with shame.

There is so much emphasis on ‘knowing’ in organisations. Logic is the binding force. Everyone wants to have all the answers. When you lead teams, there is this strange place they put you in, a place for those who know everything. The dependency displayed is addictive, and you can get drunk on the feeling of knowing it all - only to trip and fall.


This behaviour in a group can lead to it becoming dysfunctional - wherein only the leader makes decisions or takes the right decision. This slowly abdicates the group members’ individual or collective responsibility to think and act. Legitimising this implies that the ownership for the action is also very poor.


The Leadership Mirage


The pandemic taught us a lot about ‘not knowing’. There were large chunks of information that were unclear or still emerging. This took a lot of time to sink in. Everyone truly believed that mankind had all the answers. Each week brought in newer scenarios, be it about the spread of the infection, the operating guidelines given by the governments, or the functioning of the organisations.


Leaders had to learn to be okay with ‘not knowing’, continue to work on plans A, B, C, and D, and have a nagging feeling that all of them might change all over again. This needed containment and resilience and the ability to communicate the context to teams, and more importantly, be connected with one another.


Wanting to know everything and to be seen as all-knowing is a fallacy that leaders fall for. Knowledge is so overrated that it has come to a point where not knowing is considered or viewed as a weakness and is experienced with shame.


Knowing the Not Knowing


During the peak of the pandemic, I observed this fear of not knowing play out in many organisations. For easy understanding, I will limit this to a story of a Start-up.


This Start-up prided itself on its focus on empirical thinking - probably as a way to keep everything under control. This need for control became a reluctance to look inward - a need to feel comfortable, comforted, safe, and omnipotent. Its team members were strong believers of first-principles thinking, and logic was the binding force in all their decisions. Everyone truly believed that mankind had all the answers.


But, this organisation was troubled by its choice to move to a remote working model. Remote working was something it had been quick to dismiss all this while. Culturally too, in-person meetings and discussions were the primary modes of communication. It was more of a way of life, and the office spaces were also designed to foster this communication and collaboration. So, shifting the entire workforce to remote working was a challenge, especially when the company did not have a Business Continuity Plan (BCP) in place.


They had never seen the need or urgency to develop such a BCP – comfortable with the exaggerated worldview they had. Their preoccupation was with ‘What I don’t see, I don’t believe in, and does not affect me’. There was a lack of empathy, inflicting the organisation and everyone in it, with this lacuna. There was a sudden feeling of being disconnected from the centre that comes from working from home.


It took the pandemic for the organisation to learn about ‘not knowing’. It took time to sink in that there were large chunks of information that were unclear or were still emerging in this period. Every week, new scenarios came up and unknown variables had to be dealt with every day - the spread of the infection, operational guidelines from the government, changing rules of supply chain functioning, and multiple fall-throughs. They had to learn how much of ‘not knowing’ they would have to face and how even powerful international institutions and bodies were clueless.


While everyone needed an all-knowing entity, the organisation itself needed self-preservation, and therefore, a villain. And as the brain does when under duress, an organisation starts cutting down on everything that is not bare minimum. As a culmination of all this, the HR team was painted as the culprit for all the pain the system (including the team) endured. There was anger from everywhere, all directed towards specific individuals because there is solace in blaming real people over unpredictable circumstances.


Now that the pandemic seems to have lifted off some of its grimness, the organisation is afloat and the bitter stories will last alongside the good ones. The villain will remain the villain and the heroes will retain their charm.


To Lead is to Inspire


Leaders also get this high from projecting that they are all-knowing, not realising that leading is more complex than knowing. Leading is being able to be there for the team, to communicate the context, to make those tough decisions when you need to, and support the team through the easy and difficult times. It is to inspire teams to come together for a cause greater than themselves.


The fear of not knowing is quickly assimilated by team members if they witness it in their leaders. The teams also have the habit of relinquishing their power by delegating upward. When this happens, we fail to harness collective leadership or idea generation. The other part of this is the problem of demonstrating ownership.


Who owns the failure?


Who owns the implementation?


Who is accountable?


The end accountability to deliver will be with the leader, but the accountability of decision-making has to be decentralised for agility. It is unfamiliar and difficult for organisations and leaders to accept that certainty is not guaranteed and choose to be willing to learn and work towards ‘coming to know’. Yes, there will be disappointments, anxiety, and ambivalence.


A lot is possible if the team stands together and stands by the organisation. And for this to happen, leaders have to shape the culture and demonstrate it by living the articulated values of the organisation. Leaders also have to make peace with ‘figuring it out’, instead of ‘having figured it out’, and accept that there is no shame in ‘not knowing’ and that certainty is not guaranteed.


This is the new state of ‘sortedness’!


This is part of an upcoming book, ‘HR, the cuss people and their stories’ penned by the author. The book is expected to hit the stands soon!



Sunitha Lal is the CHRO at Ather Energy. She is passionate about exploring and curating organisational culture and is a strong proponent of the oral tradition of storytelling. She is the author of Dotting the Blemish and Other Stories, a collection of short stories about women that reflect and comment on the inherent prejudices we have as a society.


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