“I don’t know.” “I’m not sure.” “I wish I could tell you.”
These three statements don’t inspire a lot of confidence in the workplace. In fact, they may ignite anger and frustration among supervisors because they hint at incompetence or laziness. But sometimes it’s just an honest and courageous self-assessment, another way to say, “I need help.” Is this so bad? Does this mean our organizations come to a grinding halt?
No. This can be one of the healthiest signs in an organization; it’s something chief learning officers should be glad to hear.
Through numerous experiments, neuroscientists have proven that how we see the world depends on perceptual filters programmed into our minds from an early age. These filters serve an important function: They keep us alive. They also provide the ability to make quick decisions and engrain solidified neural pathways so our brains operate efficiently and effectively. They arm us with the ability to make statements like: “I know.” “I’m sure.” “I can tell you.” But how well-placed are these brazen statements?
Most people have been taught from an early age that having the answer is tantamount to success. How do high school students prove their worth? By knowing the answers. In college? By passing the exams.
When CLOs present new training programs, many participants may show up with the “I already know” or the “Just give me the answer already” attitude. This mindset comes with pre-determined answers and little intellectual space to absorb new ideas. The result is a waste of everyone’s time.
In 1817, English poet John Keats defined negative capability as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Establishing an environment of negative capability — the ability to be comfortable not knowing something — in a classroom opens the door to learning. But getting people to put aside their pre-determined proclivities to prove themselves, know the answers, and prove to others how good they are is not easy.
One of the most significant challenges to ensure the presence of negative capability is that it’s probably not welcome outside the classroom. In many cases, openness to learning is seen as too inefficient, costly or unwelcome. It is difficult to expect students to drop their guard in a learning environment when everything outside the doors reflects a different philosophy.
CLOs can establish this kind of environment by creating a culture that fosters trust, vulnerability and acceptance.
Trust is a lubricant for any well-functioning organization, and it is certainly a critical component in the classroom. Contrary to popular belief, trust is not earned. It’s given, and only when one of the parties in the equation extends the offer — in short, when one of the parties trusts first.
Instructors are best-positioned to grow such a climate, which means they must present themselves as authentic. They have the book knowledge, sure. But they must present from the heart, not a teaching manual.
Once a trustful climate is established, students feel safe being vulnerable, and the advantages of not knowing begin to blossom. Previous convictions disappear as attendees admit they have struggled with a particular problem. Undiscussables become discussable. Imprisoned mindsets are less likely to stay confined. New ideas begin to emerge.
One of the most welcome byproducts of an environment of trust and vulnerability is acceptance. Diversity in all its forms is embraced. There’s a sense of flow and playfulness present.
It’s important to know that when students engage in a climate where they can be themselves they understand what it’s like to be authentic and to accept others. Once they’ve experienced this, apart from the daily tension of organizational life, they can replicate it in their own workspace.