Saying “I don’t know” is often harder than we realize. Think of all the times we say we know when we don’t, both explicitly (saying, “Yeah, I know that”) or implicitly (staying quiet or unconsciously nodding our heads) despite being clueless about the topic at hand. Whether you attribute it to pride, ego, or self-consciousness, this tendency seems to manifest quite early in our lives, and then blossom into full on strategy as we grow older.
In children, this tendency has been studied in the work of Dr. Amanda Waterman who found this universal trait in her subject group of 5-to-9-year-olds. In the study, she told the children a very short story–just a few sentences–and then asked them some yes/no questions which were impossible to answer based on the information provided. The majority of children, when asked these unanswerable yes/no questions, still gave an answer despite the impossibility of knowing. Adults, who you might think “know better”, responded with an answer over one fifth of the time, despite not having any obvious reason to do so.
If in a controlled environment like the above study over twenty percent of us are essentially pretending to know something we don’t, imagine how many of us will say “I know” when the stakes are a little bit higher, like in a job interview, during a work meeting, or when talking with clients. Unfortunately, our predilection to avoid saying “I don’t know” creates the sort of environment wherein everyone is expected to “know” at all times.
The bigger issue with this is that it gets in the way of learning. When we avoid saying “I don’t know”, we miss out on the chance to be taught or initiate an investigation. Imagine a situation wherein a company adopts a new logistics regime and someone, in a meeting, asks the manager of the program whether it’s more effective than the old one. The manager might simply say, “yes, absolutely”, despite not having any solid evidence. Perhaps he’s saving face for not knowing, or there needs to be further investigation. However, he feels saying, “I don’t know” will make him look bad.
Likewise, sometimes we might get an assignment at work that requires a skill we don’t have. Instead of admitting a gap in our skillset, we’re often compelled to simply nod in compliance. You have now tacitly implied that you have this skill and in the process set very difficult to achieve expectations. This puts great stress on you and is likely unnecessary. The manager may have simply not known you didn’t possess the particular skillset required. Management benefits from this knowledge in that they will better know how to delegate tasks and provide the support their employees need.
It’s easy for us to fall into the idea that leaders are always the deciders, ones with clear answers to all questions that arise. However, often a collaborative approach results in the best course of action, and this approach is grounded in an understanding that leaders don’t always have the right answer. Great leaders have the wisdom to realize that an effective process for finding the correct answer is more important than just having answers at the ready.
To move away from this cultural norm of always knowing, management needs to more publicly admit when they don’t know something—leading by example. By shifting the energy away from this need to save face by “knowing”, you can create a culture of, “let’s find out” instead. Another thing to keep in mind when guiding this change is the importance of framing questions in such a way that allows the other person to admit not knowing. Using the above example, in lieu of asking, “Is our new logistics program more effective?”, you could ask, “Have we seen any indications that our new program is more effective than the old, and if not, could you think of any performance indicators we might track?” Instead of posing yes/no questions, provide people some room to talk things out. Realize that saying “I don’t know” is healthy for both you and the company you work for.
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