The Ability to Say “I Don’t Know”

Issue 9 and Volume 114.

By Rodger Zawodniak, Plant Superintendent, Platte Generating Station

As I brood over the recent Gulf oil disaster and how a debacle of this magnitude could possibly occur, the potential for a catastrophe at my plant instinctively comes to mind.

If a huge multinational company with a wealth of technical resources could not anticipate and prevent perhaps the worst man-made disaster ever, how could my small staff avert a comparatively trivial incident? Mechanical, welding and fire codes come to mind along with coal dust, generator hydrogen and turbine lube oil. I think about green operators, complacent mechanics, the electrician who “knows all the shortcuts” and hearing the phrase “But we’ve done it this way for 30 years!”

Finally, I am reminded of Murphy’s Law, “If anything can go wrong, it will,” and Murphy’s Corollary, “Just when you think things cannot get any worse, they will.” Without minimizing others’ actions (or the lack thereof) which may elevate risk and contribute to precarious situations, I must first look in the mirror at myself. Instead of focusing on others’ shortcomings, I must first focus on my own deficits.

Could any of my actions or behaviors influence Murphy’s Law to come into play? Which of my behaviors could turn an adverse situation into a calamity? Do I reach out to others for guidance? Do I share credit with others? Do I ever exhibit a “know-it-all” attitude? Can I be condescending to others? Do I alienate others? Do others feel free to provide feedback and disagree with me? Am I willing to admit when I’m wrong or that “I don’t know?”

Highly trained managers, especially those in technical fields, often believe our education provides us with powers of control. We frequently understand situations through the perspective from which we have been trained. At times this involves disregarding facts or events that would have a completely different meaning for managers trained in other areas. Ironically, it is the untrained or inexperienced observer who frequently perceives intrinsic errors and looming risks. Often those who lack the emotional, organizational, financial or political commitment to a specific explanation can most clearly recognize the truth.

In younger days as a newly-minted engineer and first-time manager of others, although I couldn’t distinguish the difference between fillet and bevel welds or what a Bridgeport mill looked like, I went to great lengths to demonstrate my self-perceived mental superiority and mastery of all subjects. From my university diplomas on the wall to the oversized name plate on my desk, I had to ensure everyone took notice. As time passed it became increasingly apparent that my coworkers were less likely to offer me their opinions. Sometimes it even appeared others were working against me, or in spite of me, as my colleagues garnered collaboration and support.

Soon, I realized the successful managers weren’t the ones sporting huge college rings or tasseled loafers as I envisioned. Instead, they were the ones wearing jeans, inspecting boilers and driving high-mileage “beaters” with pride. A common thread among these successful technical managers was their ability to admit faults or that they didn’t know something. Additionally, they acknowledged others’ contributions while playing down their own. Although highly respected, these managers were perceived as equals. They didn’t bask in their own glory.

As time passes, I realize the more I learn the less I know. A great epiphany, and lesson in humility, was when I concluded my “guesstimates” were frequently off by 50 percent in either direction. Being comfortable enough to say “I don’t know” is liberating. Perhaps the most cathartic experience is when we can admit to others that they’re “better equipped” than us to perform a particular job or solve a particular problem.

Among the virtues that cannot be taught in any school is the virtue of humility. A popular managerial image consists of an individual with an arrogant swagger, a “one man show” who blazes his own path and stands confident and ready to take on the world. John Wayne, Gen. George S. Patton and Napoleon Bonaparte come to mind. “Humility” doesn’t seem consistent with this image. Frequently, humility is associated with fear, subservience and being somehow “less than.” This image is false. Real humility is a sign of strength, authentic confidence and courage. It is the mark of a true leader.

Rodger Zawodniak is plant superintendent of the Platte Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Grand Island, Neb. His experience includes operations, engineering, inspection and maintenance of power generation assets. Following a Bachelor of Science from the University of Illinois-Champaign, he received separate engineering and business graduate degrees and is currently completing a PhD in Industrial & Systems Engineering.

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