Tuesday, September 15, 2015

How to Create Self-Silenced Fools

Do you try hard to look like the smartest person in the room? Do you fantasize of that moment when you fire off the perfect “gotcha” remark, disarming the speaker and coming off as really smart? Nods around the room; a raised eyebrow; a sideways glance. “Who is that guy?”  

If this describes you, you're not alone; we all want to be seen as smart.

But if zinger questioning describes life in your organization, you have a leadership problem.

To see why, first note that there are two kinds of questions, those meant to show off and those meant to learn. Questioning to show off involves hurling zingers at one another, as each of us acts out what we already know. Questioning to learn requires that we admit our ignorance, and often involves asking basic questions – the ones that appear almost too basic. Such questions do not make the questioner appear smart, but they help us all to learn.

In organizations where questions are meant to show off, it is not safe to ask questions in order to learn. After all, by trying to learn, you reveal your lack of knowledge and admit to not being the smartest person in the room. As the zingers fly, who would risk raising a hand to admit ignorance? Instead we clam up and pretend. Like the illiterate who fakes it undetected through school, we expend more effort trying to conceal our ignorance than we do trying to learn. We become a self-silenced fool.

I have seen this problem in many companies, but I have seen it at universities too. I recall presenting a research paper here at Stanford at an interdisciplinary seminar – a context where many attendees don’t know each other. Back in the corner a hand went up, an old guy with a pretty simple question. Several more times over the hour he again asked basic questions, but in doing so he was helping everyone understand my research. He was questioning to learn, not to show off. After his fourth question, I said, “Sir, may I ask, who are you?” He replied, “Ken Arrow.” As people around room craned their necks to get a look at the Nobel Laureate, I continued to answer his questions. After the seminar, a junior professor introduced himself and noted that he had thought of Professor Arrow's questions. I said "Why did you not ask them?" He replied, “They seemed so basic, almost silly.” Worried about revealing ignorance, this smart young scholar remained silent.

The young professor is not alone; we all want to look smart. Often we claim to know how smart other people are based on their comments or questions in group settings. I have lectured for decades, and I can tell you that appearing smart and being smart are two different things. Some people are very clever at the well-timed zinger, while they remain silent when a basic question should be asked. Others, thankfully, are willing to ask the basic question – much to the relief of everybody else in the room who was too afraid to ask it.

We would all be a lot smarter if we followed these two rules:

Rule 1: Admit ignorance.

Too often, you’ll hear sayings (often attributed to Lincoln or Twain) that draw on the Biblical verse Proverbs (17:28), “Even a fool, if he keeps silent, is considered wise; if he closes his lips, intelligent.”  Normally, people use this quote to keep others silent. But if you read on, it turns out that the meaning of this verse is just the opposite: Proverbs (18:1) explains, “The fool takes no delight in understanding.” Not only does the fool stay silent, but he prefers to do so even though his silence keeps him ignorant. By looking the fool and speaking our question, we gain in knowledge precisely because we reveal our ignorance.

Rule 2: Permit ignorance.

As a leader, have you made it safe for your people to reveal ignorance? Ignorance is taboo when you treat “zingers” as evidence of intelligence. Ignorance is taboo when promotions and rewards go to those who are good at self-presentation – the “smartest person in the room.” Instead, you should create an environment where it is safe to admit ignorance. Perhaps you have not even thought about this distinction. But if your organization is filled with self-silenced fools, what does this say about your leadership?


The classic study of self-presentation is by Erving Goffman.