Recently, I found myself in an impromptu meeting at my desk with several colleagues in the midst of a debate over how to implement a new software feature. We needed to reach a decision so that the engineers could get on with their work, but our available options each had drawbacks to consider. As the product manager, I had the final say over how the software should behave, but I couldn’t see a clear winner no matter which way I looked at my choices. Then, as my teammates patiently waited for me to make up my mind, I finally felt that tiny dopamine rush that you get when answer bubbles up from your subconscious.
The answer was that I didn’t know the answer. Even better, I realized didn’t care because it wouldn’t make much of a difference in the big picture. So I finally said, “I don’t really know the best way to go here, but I think you guys know enough to make a decision.” They debated a little more, made a decision and moved on.
Was it my proudest moment? Of course not – I like knowing the answers to questions, and I like figuring things out and solving problems. Still, I was surprised by how good I felt about the exchange afterward. Part of that came from knowing I wouldn’t spend more time on something minor, but after I thought about it more I realized that saying the words, “I don’t know” felt liberating in that instance,
Why did I feel that way? And when is “I don’t know” the right or wrong thing to say?
The Power of Not Knowing
I’ve written multiple times about how school conditions people to be risk-averse (and here as well), and in particular it teaches you to avoid saying “I don’t know.” For nearly all of our formative years, saying “I don’t know,” (IDK) means a red “X” next to your answer on the text and a lower grade. But whereas you are expected to know all of the right answers in school, in business no one knows all of the answers so IDK is inevitable. You should say it every so often. And while intellectual honesty is a nice plus, an even better reason is that those three magic words can actually help your career if you use them the right way.
First, I want to discard the notion that you should always say that you don’t know if you can’t answer someone’s question (an idea I’ve come across multiple times). I sympathize with the distaste for bullshit from people who don’t know what they’re doing – really, I do. But you can save face and still create opportunities for yourself if you don’t know the answer to someone’s question without BS’ing and wasting their time.
The major professional benefit of saying, “I don’t know” is that in the right circumstances you can turn not having an answer to someone’s question into an opportunity to build trust with that person by virtue of your intellectual honesty. Be careful though, because a little bit of IDK goes a long way. If that’s your answer too frequently then your overall credibility declines and people will stop coming to you with important questions. For the savvy communicator, the balancing act is knowing when to say, “I don’t know,” versus when to engage in spite of not knowing.
To that end, here are some of the base scenarios where you can “spend” an IDK:
When Saying I Don’t Know Works Best:
There’s no way you could know the answer – This is the no-brainer scenario wherein the inquiry falls well outside of your expertise. When there is no reason for someone to expect you would know the answer to their question, there is really no risk to your credibility. Here, you can use IDK as a show of transparency and as an entreaty to learning more about their question.
You can make the final decision, but you don’t really need to – When you manage people, they’ll seek your opinion on lots of relatively minor things. Sometimes people genuinely want a second opinion, but other times they just get tired of making decisions and want to offload a little bit of thinking on someone else. If you have an opinion on one of these such questions, or if the person really needs help getting un-stuck, great. But if not, there’s no harm in saying, “I don’t know,” because what you’re really saying is, “Please don’t ask me to do your thinking for you.”
You’re deliberating between options and can’t choose – This is the situation I described finding myself in above. If you’ve given a decision some real thought but can’t reach a decision, you (and the team) are better off laying out your thoughts and saying “I don’t see a clear answer – what do the rest of you think?” Welcome input from others, especially if you’re dealing with people you manage. If the stakes are high, stay closely involved until a decision is reached and be part of the process. If the stakes are lower, feel free to delegate if you’re in a position to do so.
When You Ought to Engage in Spite of Not Knowing the Answer
You should know the answer – If you should know the answer but don’t, saying “I don’t know” will probably result in one of two things. Either the person will tell you to figure it out, or they’ll lose confidence in your abilities, or both. Either way, you have to figure it out one way or another, so save time by saying, “That’s what I need to figure out, and I expect to have an answer by <achievable future date>.” Specifying a timeframe is important, and note that saying, “I’ll get back to you,” isn’t a good answer. If the stakes are high, the person will press you for a hard deadline, so pre-empt that reaction and nip their angst in the bud.
People are trying to test your skills – If you’re in a job interview, that’s not the best time to say “I don’t know,” if for no other reason than people often want to test your wits as much as the actual knowledge you have. If you’re prepared and knowledgeable about the domain, you can think out loud by working with what you do know and asking questions to glean more information. If the person or group that you’re talking wants to understand how you think in addition to simply what you know, then don’t throw in the towel too early.
You can add value without knowing the exact answer – There’s a big difference between having no idea and having some idea. In most cases, when someone asks you a question that baffles you to the extent that you have no idea whatsoever, they’re asking you something outside your domain. The rest of the time, you usually have some valid thoughts to contribute even if you don’t have the exact answer the person is looking for.
How “I Don’t Know” Becomes a Trust-Building Tool
There are no hard and fast rules for something like this since so much depends on the situation and the people involved. That said, I’ll offer one counter-intuitive rule of thumb: It’s better to say “I don’t know” to people who report to you rather than your bosses. It might seem reasonable to show steadfast confidence to the people you manage and reveal doubts and indecision upward. However, I think it’s more effective to do the opposite.
I’ve written before about the under-appreciated role that trust plays in the early career phase, but there are important differences between the trust dynamic you have with your direct reports (and peers) and the one you have with your managers. You want your managers to trust you with more responsibility, so when they have big questions you want them to seek you out. If you don’t have a good answer offhand, that’s when you want to buy yourself a little time to find a way to help them out if at all possible. Solving problems for people, particularly those more senior than you, is the most straightforward way to build a relationship with someone whose advice and benefaction can help you. They might not distrust you if you say “I don’t know,” when they come to you with some interesting new question, but you won’t create a lasting impression either. Those opportunities don’t come up every day when you’re just starting out, so finding a way to engage meaningfully is important. Sometimes this can be an opportunity to become an expert on something new and important.
The people that you manage (either directly via reporting lines or indirectly on a project) on the other hand need to trust that your decisions are well-reasoned, that you care about their professional development, and that you know what you’re doing. Paradoxically, that’s exactly why it’s so important to occasionally tell them you don’t have all the answers.
The first reason why this is so is obvious: your best people will see right through you if you’re full of it. They won’t like that if they see it, so you might as well prevent that from happening. Does that you mean you communicate every tiny moment of doubt you ever have to your team? Hell no. All important decisions involve uncertainty, and the fact is you still need your team to commit to a plan even though you can’t be 100% sure the outcome will be successful. And there’s a big difference between occasionally revealing your uncertainty and constantly undermining yourself. The former shows your team that you’re honest and secure, whereas the latter will make you seem like a waffler. Whenever possible, find a way to communicate your uncertainty within a defined plan: “We’re going to do X, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll do Y.”
The second reason it helps to say “I don’t know” to your team once in a while is that it can have a weird way of building your credibility if you do it just right. Once you’ve demonstrated to a group that you will admit when you don’t know the answer, it implies that you do know the answer unless you say otherwise. It’s funny, but the willingness to say “I don’t know,” when the stakes are low builds the trust you need when stakes are higher, and that’s valuable. Leadership requires making unpopular decisions, and sometimes you have to end the debate and move forward over the objections of others. It’s not always friendly or fun, but when you’re in those situations, their trust in your judgment and motivations goes a long way towards ensuring the cooperation you need.