Go Ahead… Say It Out Loud: “I Don’t Know”

Are you comfortable with the phrase, “I don’t know?”

I’m not … but I’m learning to familiarize myself quickly. Luckily, leading a growing organization provides many opportunities to practice!

I used to avoid this statement like I avoided waking up for my 8am Art History class in college (I never went!). I’m becoming more comfortable today, though. It’s not that I know less today than a few years ago. At some point my age may cause that to be true. Rather, I’m just becoming more comfortable accepting and acknowledging what “I don’t know.”

Here is the problem. When I was a younger leader, I assumed admitting my lack of insight would undermine my leadership influence. I wanted to be seen as a thought leader. I wanted the promotion. I wanted the next opportunity. And I believed the path to the leadership promise land was paved by answers, expertise, and confidence.

Unfortunately, pretending to know all the answers led me to over-promise and under-deliver. In case you don’t know, that’s NOT the best method to promotions and opportunities.

Here’s what I’ve come to realize: I DON’T know WAY more than I DO know. The older I get, the more I realize what I don’t know. I think we call that maturity. With that in mind, the longer I lead, the more I’ve realized it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” It’s actually more than okay. It’s important as a leader to publicly say, “I don’t know,” because “I don’t know,” also says:

1. “I’m humble…”

It was my pride that kept me from admitting what I didn’t know. Saying, “I don’t know” to your staff, peers, and even your boss, communicates humility. And humility is arguably the most attractive leadership quality.

2. “I’m willing to learn…”

Nobody believes you know everything, but pretending to know everything tells others you are unwilling to learn. Openly admitting “I don’t know” tells others that you are open. Leaders are always learners, so in some ways, great leadership requires admitting knowledge gaps.

3. “It’s okay to be honest…”

Leaders set the pace and tone in every organization. Saying “I don’t know” allows honesty to be part of the organizational tone.

4. “It’s okay to be curious and explore new ideas…”

Often, innovation is birthed from knowledge gaps. You willingness to publicly say “I don’t know” carries with it the intention to find out, explore ideas, and innovate solutions. “I don’t know” invites curiosity.

5. “I need your help…”

This is important. Saying “I don’t know” opens the doors for leadership and knowledge sharing across the organization. If people assume their boss or the organizational leader knows it all, then employees will not find it necessary or acceptable to share what they know. What’s the point – their boss already knows everything!

In many ways, our organizations are only as strong as our collective knowledge and abilities. Publicly admitting our knowledge gaps opens the door for everyone to learn and share together, strengthening our organizations in the process.

As fellow leaders, my guess is many of you have become comfortable saying “I don’t know.” What else has this admission gained you? How has it impacted your influence? I’d love to hear what you’ve learned in the comments below… because “I don’t know.”

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2 Responses

  1. I do agree that it can be an awkward request, and when the calls are made I typically end up on their voicemail, however the people that I do actually talk to seem to genuinely appreciate the call. I think the follow up not being awkward is more important than the request to follow up. While the call may only last a minute or so, it allows the opportunity to personally say thank you for being our guest and we hope to have you again.

    I realize you are already familiar with the points, thanks for the post. Good stuff!

  2. Hi Gavin, I’d like to emphasize your 5th point of not stopping with “I don’t know”. As a green GT grad in industrial field sales, I was once asked a detailed chemical application question by a customer; a highly seasoned PhD Technical Director. I *thought* I knew the answer, but I was intimidated enough to say I wasn’t sure. However, I confidently followed that remark by telling him that I knew where (and who!) I could get his answer from, and I committed to get it for him before the end of the day. To my pleasant surprise, he did NOT berate me for incompetence, or the fact that HE knew MY business better than I did, and we went on to have a great business relationship.

    Another lesson you imply here: Leaders need to hire to – and delegate to – their personal knowledge and vocational gaps. When the “I don’t know” events happen, KNOW your resources, and utilize them.

    As Dan Fogelberg once said:

    “The higher you climb, the more that you see.
    The more that you see, the less that you know.
    The less that you know, the more that you yearn.
    The more that you yearn, the higher you climb.”

    Important points, Gavin. Thanks for sharing!

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