The Power of ‘I Don’t Know’

If I think back to all the great leaders (whether by title or otherwise) that I have had or come across in my life they all have one thing in common – they frequently admit to what they don’t know.

There were many instances where throughout a meeting or a discussion someone would direct a question (usually to the leaders in the room) to which the response would be a mystifying “That’s a great question, I don’t know”.

At the time I didn’t know why hearing that phrase from these people made me more inclined to listen to them, more inclined to follow them and more inclined to emulate them.

After all, leaders should know! Otherwise, how did they become leaders in their profession?  These were basic questions that I grappled with very early on in my career.  The problem was that this perspective wasn’t only limited to the workplace, I simply deemed anyone who frequently used the phrase “I don’t know” as an amateur, and discounted him as being a ‘well-informed individual’.

I realized later that this is due to the way I was largely conditioned throughout my academic life.  In academia knowing is succeeding.  To know is to pass! To not know is to fail! Simple!  Therefore, those who knew were automatically labeled ‘Smart’ and those who didn’t know were labeled …well, you get the idea.  As students we strived to know everything, and we were expected to know everything.  In my final capstone course of my Bachelor’s degree we had to deliver a thesis-like presentation for an hour, after which several faculty members would grill you about this topic.  The idea was to stand there for as long as it took answering every question they throw at you, not knowing was not an option.

It’s no surprise that when I started my professional career I would take it upon myself to know all the answers, and at times fake the fact that I know all the answers because God forbid should someone find out that I don’t know I wouldn’t have much of a career!!!

That’s when I started to notice 2 things

1)      I wasn’t particularly well-liked among my peers – for reasons beyond me at the time, and

2)      I began to notice that successful, well-liked leaders, managers, and people in the organization were quick to admit to not knowing when they didn’t know.

After many years of closely observing these successful people and at times working with them I’ve realized that they placed a greater emphasis on working collaboratively than knowing the right answers.  As in, it wasn’t so important to know, as it was in how you go about knowing.

But there is also something to be said about the modesty of it all.  We naturally gravitate towards people who are down-to-earth, who are humble and admit that they do not know everything.  It also displays a great deal of confidence because as we all know, its not easy to say ‘I don’t know’ in front of others but both confidence and honesty are factors that attracts us to others. Especially leaders, because it “brings them down to our level” we’re able to relate to them a lot better and THAT is what attracts us to them.

Reality is we don’t know everything, and we don’t have all the answers and that’s OK!

Not knowing is the first step towards discovery, and exploration.  It’s the ice-breaker to great team-work and the spark for collaboration.

So the next time you’re asked something you don’t know, acknowledge that it’s a great question (after all it stumped even yourself) and ask an ever better question “How can we figure that out?”  

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