When you don’t know the answer, what do you say?

When you are asked a question and you don’t know the answer, what do you say?  What does that say about you?

What happens to people in your organization who say “I don’t know.”? Are they lauded or laughed at? Are they promoted, overlooked, or demoted? How many people do you know that have said: “I don’t know.”?  And what does that say about your company?

When you know someone doesn’t know, what do you do? Do you ask them a pointed question in public to make everyone aware that the person doesn’t know? Do you ask oblique questions to raise doubt about the person’s knowing? Do you ask them a question in private to help them know they don’t know? Do you engage in an informal discussion where you plant the seeds of knowing? And how do you feel about your actions?

When you say “I don’t know.” you make it safe for others to say it. So, do you say it? And how do you feel about that?

When you don’t know and you say otherwise, decision quality suffers and so does the company. Yet, some companies make it difficult for people to say “I don’t know.” Why is that? Do you know?

I think it’s unreasonable to expect people to know the answer to know the answers to all questions at all times. And when you say “I don’t know.” it doesn’t mean you’ll never know; it means you don’t know at this moment. And, yet, it’s difficult to say it.  Why is that? Do you know?

Just because someone asks a question doesn’t mean the answer must be known right now. It’s often premature to know the answer, and progress is not hindered by the not knowing. Why not make progress and figure out the answer when it’s time for the answer to be known?  And sometimes the answer is unknowable at the moment.  And that says nothing about the person that doesn’t know the answer and everything about the moment.

It’s okay if you don’t know the answer.  What’s not okay is saying you know when you don’t.  And it’s not okay if your company makes it difficult for you to say you don’t know. Not only does that create a demoralized workforce, but it’s also bad for business.

Why do companies make it so difficult to say “I don’t know.”?  You guessed it – I don’t know.

“Question Mark Cookies 1” by Scott McLeod is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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