The surprisingly simple answer to everything. Seriously.
What if I were to tell you there was one answer to every single question in the universe? One response that was always 100% true and always 100% right. And what if I told you that this is one of the least used answers at times when it is the most appropriate? Would you believe me? Probably not, but you should. Because there is one answer to any question that is 100% right, 100% honest, and totally underused. So, what is it? I don’t know. No, that’s not a joke. That’s the answer: “I don’t know.”
When somebody asks you a question, saying “I don’t know” feels like a cop-out. We worry that people won’t take us seriously or, worse, that they’ll think we’re stupid (because God forbid there’s something on this planet we haven’t learned yet). But saying I don’t know in many cases isn’t only more honest than trying to B.S. your way through a project, it actually saves you time and builds trust within your team.
Here’s why: The myth of the “all-knowing” leader
For some reason, we all want to be the person who knows everything. The “go-to-girl or -guy” that the rest of the team looks upon with awe and respect. When we think of a leader, we rarely imagine a person with a stumped, confused look on their faces. Instead, we think of a confident, smart, action-oriented person who has all the right answers for any contingent question that could come their way. The problem is, this type of person doesn’t exist in real life. They’re fictional. Every night we fill our minds with books and t.v. shows that portray these incredible, “all-knowing” leaders and, for some reason, we hold ourselves to those mythical standards. We watch Dr. House solve an impossible case, Sherlock Holmes decode a dead language to crack the clue, or we see Carrie Mathison save major cities from terrorists. (And, yes, I know I need to catch up on some more modern shows).
After seeing all this kick-ass behavior, how am I supposed to admit I forgot something as trivial as the URL for a new tool we’re using or where to find a customer acquisition path in Google Analytics? I can always just keep quiet, say, “Yeah, I can get that to you” and Google my out of the answer. Right?
Wrong. Especially if you’re trying to improve at whatever field you’re in.
There’s a reason why the expression is “jack of all trades, master of none.” No one can be a real master of everything. At best, you can be a “jack of all trades, master of some,” but even that’s rare. Most commonly, you’ll be a “jack of some trades, master of one.” And when you get to that point, you’ll realize that it was being open about what didn’t know that got you there.
How admitting you don’t know something saves time and builds trust
The comedian Gerry Dee (most known for his semi-autobiographical show, “Mr. D.”) had a brilliant bit from his teaching days when the “smart kids” would ask a question he didn’t know the answer to. One question came from a kid called Duncan: “Sir, what happened to the Mayan civilization.” As Gerry explains, “Teachers don’t admit when we don’t know the answer. We just throw everything back on the kids. ‘Oh, is that right Duncan? So you think I’m just gonna’ spoon-feed you the answer, do you? No, that’s not how I teach kids. So thanks to Duncan, I’d like the rest of you to go home tonight, and look up the answer to whatever he’s mumbling about in the back…’ I had to have Duncan write his question on the board in big letters so I could see how to spell “Mayans” to look up later that night myself.” As facetious as this example may sound, there’s a ring of truth to it; one that certainly isn’t limited to teachers. How often do you do the same thing on an internal level? You’re unclear on certain aspects of a project and rather than getting it sorted out by someone in a 2-minute conversation, you spend an hour looking it up on Google. Or someone asks you a question that you know you should know, so you dance around an answer until you’ve said something passable. Again, you Google it later. Here’s a pro-tip: next time, just say “I don’t know,” especially if you’re the one in charge. It saves so much wasted time which, in turn, saves money. Plus, people will respect you more in the end. As, Gaurav Gupta wrote for Forbes, “Your willingness to admit when you don’t have all the answers and your curiosity to find them will lead to better decision making and greater trust within your team. This authentic approach will speak to your character as a leader.”
The truth is that most people have a pretty good internal gauge for “bull-shit.” I’m not sure if it comes from thousands of years of evolution or simply decades of corporate America, but they’ve got it. And once you’ve been caught pretending to be an expert in all the things you aren’t, it’s hard to rebuild credibility with your colleagues and teammates.
Diving one step deeper: Why “I don’t know” is always right, but usually incomplete
You know that movie, “Horrible Bosses?” (I’m leaving out the sequel because it was, ironically, a horrible movie). It’s the one where the main characters conspire to kill their ruthlessly terrible, totally manipulative, borderline sociopathic bosses. Yeah, I had one of those in real life.
This guy was a nutcase and I’m pretty sure I already introduced him in a previous post. For the sake of his privacy, I’ll simply refer to him as “Moron” from here on out. Whenever Moron would ask a question if an employee said “I don’t know” he’d lose his shit. “That’s not an answer” Moron would yell, all puffed up and red in the face. “‘I don’t know’ isn’t a f***ing answer.” Setting aside Moron’s poor people skills for a minute, let’s focus on the main point: he’s half right. Even though “I don’t know” is, in fact, an answer, it’s not complete; at least not in the business world. A good leader should never accept the statement “I don’t know” from a member of their team. But they should always accept the phrase, “I don’t know, but let me find that out for you” with open arms (and with a little more eloquence than Moron). A few words make all the difference.
The first response translates to, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” That’s obviously a toxic attitude in any company and needs to be addressed. But the second response translates to, “I don’t know but I’m not one to just sit around and twiddle my thumbs… let me get to work and figure that out to help the team.” That’s an award-winning attitude and one that should be highly regarded and openly rewarded. A word from the wise who know they’re really fools
Shakespeare once said, “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” And it’s true. When you look back at history’s greatest thinkers starting with Socrates himself, they weren’t always the ones that started out with the answers; they were the ones who knew they didn’t know the answers but were driven enough to find out.
So will this advice drastically change every aspect of your life? Will it increase your productivity at work and improve your relationships? Will it do anything at all on a tangible level to make you happier, wiser, and more confident? To be honest, I don’t know, but let’s find out.