How to defeat the humiliation of ignorance – with trust

This week I had an enlightening conversation with one of my team members. A brilliant engineer, we talked about how difficult it can be in a work environment (in any environment, really) to be honest about the things you don’t know. Admitting you don’t know something can open you up to ridicule, condescension, humiliation or worse, it can relegate you to irrelevance. There’s a reason everyone knows the phrase “fake it ’til you make it” – because NOT faking it causes problems.

What does ignorance really mean?

In recent years, the word “ignorant” has become a pejorative. It’s a phrase used to belittle people, or make them feel stupid. But one of the definitions of the word ignorant is “lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact.” As in, “I am ignorant of astrophysics.” (I am.) Other definitions include “uninformed or unaware”, or “uneducated about a given topic”.

Doesn’t that describe all of us?

So how do we move past the need to pretend we know everything? How can we work with our teams to become learners and conquer the important things we don’t know so we can move toward success?

In other words, how do we expose our ignorance without it leading to humiliation?

I asked that question with those exact words to my team member. He thought for a minute, exhaled deeply, and said one word.


That one word has rocked me for this whole week. Over the past years of building Uptick, I’ve talked about trust, written blogs about it, and created podcasts discussing its merits. But how do we actually build trust? What are its components, and where do I start?

Well, I am not qualified (I’m ignorant!) to present an exhaustive list, but let me share some ideas based on my long leadership experience, good and bad, as well as some things I have found in my research. (I invite you to add to the list, or disagree, by responding to me on LinkedIn or on Twitter.)


Competence will always be a key component of trust. If you are a leader without the capability to cast vision, solve problems, allocate resources properly, provide strategic direction or manage the team, you will never gain the team’s trust. Even if they like you, they won’t trust you.

The same is true for team members. If you don’t have the right skill set or training, your manager will have difficulty trusting you when “the game is on the line.” (I would add that in many cases a team member’s competence depends on good management. Part of our job as managers is to make sure our team is competent!)

Competence is NOT about knowing everything…or pretending you do. People will recognize a poser and quickly distrust someone who is constantly trying to prove how competent they are.

But one of the best ways to convey competence to the team is to be honest about where you have gaps in your own knowledge and experience. Being self aware about your competencies and your weaknesses is an important part of developing trust with your team. Yes, you need to be good at certain parts of your job, but knowing where you need help is also a facet of competence. The chances are the team already recognizes these deficiencies. Acknowledging them not only helps normalize “being human”, but it allows you and your team to fill the gaps – further building trust.


Character also plays a heavy role in building trust on your team. If those around you know that you’ll do what you say you’re going to do, that you’ll be honest, fair, committed and teachable, trust will be built more quickly and will be more sustainable.

I’ve always said that people are smarter than I think they are. Their intuition tells them when something is wrong, and bad character often screams at them. And while trust is difficult to build, rebuilding trust is an even rockier road.

If people don’t believe in the messenger, they won’t believe the message. If people don’t believe in you, they won’t believe in what you say. And if it’s about you, then it’s about your beliefs, your values, your principles.”

Barry Posner and James Kouzes from “Credibility”

Years ago I had a friend with a business partner that was cheating on his wife. When my friend opted out of the business, his partner was confused. “But this is business!”, he said. My friend responded kindly but directly: “If you can turn your back on a relational covenant that you made before God and all your family and friends, why would I assume you would be faithful to our business relationship?”

All people, whether in the C-Suite or the manufacturing floor, and looking for consistency. Integrity. They want to know that they can count on the truth, and that the truth doesn’t change when it’s inconvenient. What they see from you in your dealings with others will impact their ability to trust you…for better or worse.

Credibility as a component of character

Character, or the lack thereof, is also impacted by our credibility. Barry Posner and James Kouzes, in their book “Credibility“, wrote:

“Credibility, like reputation, is something that is earned over time. It does not come automatically with the job or the title. It begins early in our lives and careers. People tend to assume initially that someone who has risen to a certain status in life, acquired degrees, or achieved significant goals is deserving of their confidence. But complete trust is granted (or not) only after people have had the chance to get to know more about the person. The credibility foundation is built brick by brick. And as each new fragment is secured, the basis on which we can erect the hopes of the future is gradually built.”


“Leadership is personal. It’s not about the corporation, the community, or the country. It’s about you. If people don’t believe in the messenger, they won’t believe the message. If people don’t believe in you, they won’t believe in what you say. And if it’s about you, then it’s about your beliefs, your values, your principles.”

It’s true that our credibility is impacted by our competence. I would not be a credible expert as a forensic scientist in a murder trial. I have no competence or experience, and therefore no one should trust me in that role. But as Posner and Kouzes point out, credibility is more about you – “your beliefs, your values, your principles.” Something far deeper than simple competence. And that leads us to our most important point.


Care, (or “benevolence” as some experts call it) is perhaps the key component to building trust. Other components are built on this. One quote many of us have heard is “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” It’s a cute quote, and easy to ignore as a platitude, but research has shown it to be true.

The chances that a manager who is strongly disliked will be considered a good leader are only about one in 2,000.

Dr. Amy Cuddy

Adam Waytz, Professor of Management and Organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management stated it this way:

The problem is, in the world of business, people tend to focus on conveying competence.

When they want to restore trust or when they want to gain people’s trust initially, businesses tend to focus on competence: letting people know that they’re intelligent, that they’re capable, that they have the ability to act on whatever their intentions are.

Consumers and people in the world and just people who are engaged in social life care about competence second. They care about warmth first. This is also important for leaders as well. (Check out more from him here.)

Amy Cuddy, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, does a great job of explaining how warmth (kind, caring, friendly) is a more important trait than strength (competence, credentials, etc.):

So which is better, being lovable or being strong? Most leaders today tend to emphasize their strength, competence, and credentials in the workplace, but that is exactly the wrong approach. Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear, and along with it a host of dysfunctional behaviors. Fear can undermine cognitive potential, creativity, and problem solving, and cause employees to get stuck and even disengage. It’s a “hot” emotion, with long­lasting effects. It burns into our memory in a way that cooler emotions don’t. Research by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman drives this point home: In a study of 51,836 leaders, only 27 of them were rated in the bottom quartile in terms of likability and in the top quartile in terms of overall leadership effectiveness-in other words, the chances that a manager who is strongly disliked will be considered a good leader are only about one in 2,000. (You can read more of her work here.)

So how do we care for our teams?

  • Communicate, and communicate with honesty, empathy, and transparency. It’s been played out over and over in my own leadership journey. When I show trust in my team by letting them in on the process of change, strategy or even just my own life, I am repaid by their loyalty and hard work. When I communicate with less clarity and intent, vain imaginings can take over and the whole team becomes more unstable.
  • Seek to understand more about your team members than simply the output of their work. They are individuals, not manufactured pawns. They have their own hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, and probably come to work in the midst of life circumstances that affect their attitude. Without crossing their personal boundaries, carefully get to know them so you can serve them well. As a manager, serving your team is job #1.
  • Ask lots of questions, and seek to understand before being understood. As leaders we will quickly hurt trust by appearing to care more for ourselves than we do for the team. By asking good questions, listening well, and taking in difficult feedback without being defensive, we model what it means to be a humble member of the team, not a top-down leader.

Wrapping it up

In the end, it’s understandable that managers and team members alike tend to lean too hard on competence. After all, it’s much easier to measure concrete productivity, sales and certifications. You can use data. But the soft skills required to be a genuine, caring, empathetic leader (or team member) clearly make it easier to develop trust with your team, which will help open up your team culture and conquer the fear of humiliation when admitting ignorance is best for everyone.

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