The Joy of “I Don’t Know.”

How do you feel about telling people at work, or anywhere else, that you don’t know the answer?

Someone comes up to you in the office and asks you a question, and you respond by simply looking right at them and saying “I don’t know.”, how does that make you feel?

Does the idea of not knowing the answer fill you with dread? Does it terrify you?

You’re not alone.

After all, aren’t we supposed to know stuff? Isn’t that what we get paid for? To know stuff and to be very clever?

Aren’t we all supposed to be the experts?

That’s how we got to where we are, by knowing stuff; by knowing the answers to stuff, by knowing how to do stuff, by knowing the processes and procedures, by knowing how stuff works.

There is a perception that to say you don’t know is the end of the world, that it somehow constitutes gross misconduct. People move into completely new roles in totally new parts of a business, or in a new business, and from minute one, there they are, blagging away trying to make everyone around them think that they already have all the answers, desperately trying to hide the fact that there might be stuff they just don’t know yet.

Think of the damage that is doing.

Not only the damage to themselves, their careers, their brands; but their teams and their projects.

The funny thing is, they shouldn’t know, it’s not their job to know; their job is to bring people together to figure out the answers. These people are managers, directors, leaders, if they are only being asked questions they know the answers to then they are in the wrong job.

Leaders should live in a permanent state of “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out.”

“I don’t know” is so powerful, it gives you so much:

  • It releases leaders to lead, it allows you to lean on your team, you are not there to know all the answers, they are. It releases your team to do their jobs, to show you what they’re capable of, to learn and develop themselves.

  • It recognises that you have more to learn because you will always have more to learn, it tells you that you are still being challenged, that there is more there for you, more space to develop, more hills to climb.

  • It gives us back time, our most precious resource, it is a version of “No” that says “I’ll hand it to the right person to do.”, or even “Let’s figure this out together.” It allows us to recognise that we might not be the best person to answer this question or complete this task.

  • Finally, it frees us from ego. It is ego that tells us that we should blag it, that we should present that we know the answer when we don’t. It is ego that says you must know all the answers to be the most knowledgable and respected person in the room. It is ego that wants us to be the most knowledgable and respected person in the room in the first place.

Once you say “I don’t know.”, once, you have taken a step away from ego, a step towards freedom. Once you step over that line it becomes infinitely easier the second time, and the third, and the fourth. It begins to develop another muscle, one that is as easily as important as “No”, one that allows us not only to free up our time, but to develop others as well.

So, how can you start saying “I don’t know”?

It’s easy really, you should start saying it.

Start with yourself, admit to yourself that you don’t know the answer to a thing, or to a bunch of things. Be honest with yourself, admitting something is the first step, and if you can’t be honest with yourself that you don’t know an answer then how can you expect to be honest with anyone else?

Once you’re OK with that then you can start to admit it to others, you can start to openly say the words beyond in your head, you can tell people that there are things you simply don’t know.

After that you can start to enjoy it. I genuinely revel in saying that I don’t know the answer to something… most of the time.

Which brings me to the rules.

  • You can’t just shrug and walk away: This isn’t a get out of jail free card, you can’t just say “Dunno, mate.”, and be done. Once you’ve said “I don’t know” you need to suggest a follow-up course of action; a person to speak to or an approach to find out the answer. It may not be for you to follow up, but it’s certainly not for you to just drop.

    You may even learn something.

  • There’s some stuff you should know: If it is absolutely your job to know the answer to a question, then you had better know it, it’s pretty simple. If it’s someone else’s job to know the answer to the question, then you don’t need to know it and you can say “I don’t know.”, it if’s straight up your job to know, then know.

If you get “I don’t know.”, right then it is hugely liberating.

Recognising that there are things out there for others to know, questions for others to answer, work for others to do; really is a joy, an unimaginable weight off your shoulders.

It is an essential step to leadership; when I took on my first team, within two weeks of taking the job I had a family emergency to deal with that would see me working remotely and outside of normal hours for more than a month; when I told my boss this he told me that I could do my job from anywhere, all I needed was a mobile phone, and the knowledge of who on my team I needed to call. He was absolutely right.

And while I was in the role I had feedback again and again from the same individual that I needed to go on training courses to become an expert in the system that my team ran. I resisted this constantly, my team were there to be the experts, and I was there to lead them, how could I develop them if I had all the answers myself? It wasn’t my job to know.

So feel the joy of not knowing, of empowering others, of being the person who knows how to get to any answer, not the person who makes up what they think the answer should be because they are afraid to admit that someone else might know something that they don’t.

Feel the joy of learning, of growing, and of leading. Feel the joy of “I don’t know.”

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