I Don’t Know

Those three words instill fear with some people. Part of a leader’s job is to ask questions, sometimes difficult questions. I think we have to be conscious of how we are asking the questions, but I wonder why people don’t just say “I don’t know” when they don’t know the answer.
Many people feel that talking their way through an answer, even if they don’t know the answer, is better than just saying they don’t know the answer.
I disagree. I believe it’s much better, and not a sign of weakness, to just say you don’t know.
I remember my Mom telling me that you don’t have to have a good memory if you always tell the truth. I think Mom was onto something.

We often are coached to be confident. I would argue that confident people can say they don’t know the answer to something. When faced with this situation, ask yourself “why” you would be inclined to “wing it” instead of just saying it. Then keep asking “why?”

Why #1: Why won’t you just say you don’t know?
Answer 1: I’m afraid that I’ll look stupid
Why #2: Why are you afraid that you will look stupid?
Answer 2: Because I think my Boss thinks I should know the answer
Why #3: Why do you think your Boss thinks you should know the answer?
Answer 3: I don’t know.

Bingo. In this example, the core issue might be expectations between you and your Boss. Have a discussion with your Boss about expectations, and level of detail you should have in your role given your scope. Likely this conversation will be enlightening in that your assumptions of what your Boss expects do not actually match what your Boss expects. Having this conversation saves you from losing credibility when you try to “wing it” but inevitably admit to not having a clue.

If we were all much better about being open and honest about this type of thing, then we can be liberated, and not fearful, when responding to a question for which we do not know the answer.

“I don’t know, but I can find out.”

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