The Power of “I Don’t Know”
False answers are far more likely to undermine the most sacred leadership currency: trust.
One of the greatest sources of satisfaction in life is to have the correct answer. That is the reward for having the right knowledge at the right time. Whether answering a test question or speaking at a large meeting, delivering the right answer builds our self-confidence and credibility with others. But what happens when the circumstances change from “I know” to “I don’t know”?
The reality is, answers are not always available just in time, and we wrestle with how to handle the awkward moment of uncertainty. We have all witnessed the individual who puts on the mask of certainty, trying to impress others as they incorrectly answer a question, rather than admitting their lack of knowledge. Ask yourself: Is that me?
An Authentic Admission
I am very familiar with projecting understanding when in reality, I did not know. For example, I was recently in a conversation in which a colleague was telling a story that referred to a sensitive HR situation. My colleague believed I was in the loop and asked me, “You know about that, right?” I nodded, but was not aware of the situation—I pretended to know to keep the conversation going forward and to sustain the perception I was in the loop. I later reflected on how I should have had more courage to indicate I did not know about the situation, in order to build a more authentic communication style.
Sounds pretty simple… just start saying, “I don’t know.” Yes and no. Admitting you do not have the answer promotes respect and uncovers the expertise needs you have as a leader. The caution is saying “I don’t know” repeatedly on the same topic gets to the issue of competence, and your credibility may be hurt.
Credibility takes years to build and moments to lose. We build our knowledge base learning from what we hear, read and observe. This expertise serves us well as we strive to balance broad knowledge with deep expertise. However, our knowledge capacity has limits, and we will not have all the answers. “I don’t know” will become reality, whether suppressed in your thoughts or shared through your words. Do you play your cards and admit your ignorance, or dance around the truth and hope your shortcoming goes unnoticed?
Here are three keys to answering questions when the answer is not readily available:
One effective technique to challenging questions is to affirm the individual and redirect the uncertainty to the audience: “That’s a great question, and I do not have an immediate answer for you. Does anyone else have an answer we can discuss to make sure this is resolved?”
Honoring the question and the individual, as well as maintaining your integrity by honestly answering the inquiry, is critical. Redirecting the question to the audience is also effective to identify and recognize subject matter experts in your group. The end result is “I don’t know” becomes a positive experience for the questioner, receiver and other key experts on your team. Successful leaders often redirect the focus away from themselves toward others.
Question the Question
When you are asked a question you cannot answer, consider reframing the question. “When will I get promoted?” A successful response is to recognize the question and questioner, followed by questioning the original question: “I can understand your interest in moving up in our organization, and your career has been very successful so far. My question is: what have you done to prepare yourself for future opportunities, realizing you may need a new set of skills as you earn greater responsibilities?”
Remember, the difficult question you receive is a starting point, and you may need to probe deeper into what is really being asked. Leaders take great care to honor questions while also realizing a better question may be available.
“I’ll get back to you” is often said, but many times, poorly delivered. A good example is asking someone a question in an informal setting, i.e. hallway or social event, and they assure you they will respond. Your request is not written down and your expectations are lowered.
A successful approach is to build a response agreement. Confirm you understand the question, gain agreement on the timeframe to respond, and make sure you have the proper contact information and their preferred communication mode. Build a mutual agreement to deliver the right answer.
I have heard leaders say that “I don’t know” is a sign of weakness. The real threat is producing false answers that undermine the most sacred leadership currency: trust. Redirect questions to get others involved, question the question to identify the real need, and build credibility by honoring your response agreement.
Great leaders know what they don’t know. iBi
Todd Popham is president and CEO of Popham & Associates, a coaching, consulting and leadership development firm. He is also a graduate school instructor, executive coach and president of the AMBA Alumni Board at Bradley University. For more information, visit pophamassociates.com.