Not knowing can be very Powerful

Many years ago I got a lesson on how to manipulate roundabouts in Lisbon, Portugal.

My companion told me that Portuguese men can be the nicest and mildest of people, but not when they have a steering wheel in their hands and a car in their control.. He had noticed that I was unable to make any progress in getting into traffic on a roundabout and, he was right, in theory I could have been there forever.

“What you have to do,” he told me “is to see the other person on the roundabout but make sure that they don’t know you have seen them. If they know you have seen them, they know you will give way to them…. as you have been doing now for over five minutes.  Not knowing can, paradoxically, make you very powerful!

“I need to know what’s Going on”:

I recalled this while talking to a manager some time back on the danger of wanting and getting too much information.

“But, I have to know what’s going on,” he replied, “I too will be asked what’s happening and I can’t say I don’t know.”

“It will be fine,” I told him, “if it stayed like that,  if it was simply a question of getting information. But you know it won’t stop there. Once you know what is happening, and more importantly what is not happening, you will want and feel obliged to do something about it.  You will take the various problems away, probably discuss them with others, and come back with comments, advice and instructions on what to do. In one fell swoop you will have robbed people of the opportunity to solve it themselves and of the responsibility for doing so. In one fell swoop you will also be creating a whole industry of management where everything that happens is taken to a superior level, reviewed, analysed and converted into management decisions.

The Industry of Management

Very often these decisions will not be ones that the people themselves would have taken and very often they will not even be good ones.

On top of all this, because people have lost the ownership and responsibility for making something happen, they will very often carry out the management instructions in a reluctant, half-hearted, and inadequate way.

This creates a whole new dynamic and a further need for management and the industry of management. Now management have to review to ensure that what they wanted done is actually happening and they have to convince and motivate people to “do what they are told” and, in some cases, take some form of action against those who are failing to comply.

All of this then becomes the daily task of management who are so clear that nothing would get done if they weren’t around to make it happen.


But, of course it would. It would all have happened and got done very naturally and easily if people were helped to KNOW what was required and why, helped to really WANT to make it happen and happen well, and, finally, helped to be ABLE to do all that.

Helping people to KNOW, to WANT and to be ABLE to do what is required is the real and fundamental role of management.

While this is an ongoing process, it does mean that people will feel ownership and accountability for their areas of work and, because they are the ones closest to it, actually, most times, do it a lot better.

It does, of course, pose major challenges to the role of managers and to their egos, but the rewards are also major. The rewards will come from that sense of accountability and pride that people will feel when they are entrusted with and trusted to get things done.  And from the knowledge that they have of what really works at their level and based on their expertise.

It does mean that as a manager you don’t have to know everything that is going on but, don’t forget, like the Portuguese drivers, “not knowing can be very powerful”.