Why Sometimes You Should Say “I Don’t Know”

When you’re the manager, the last thing you want to do is appear uninformed or incompetent when someone asks you a question – but even worse can be the damage caused by guessing at the answers.

Yet it’s often our first impulse to spin out conjecture rather than simply saying, “I don’t know.”

The risks? You could be proven wrong down the road. You could lose your team’s confidence. You could miss out on an opportunity to learn together. The rewards? There’s always that chance you might be right and dodge a costly bullet.

The truth is that no one expects you to have an encyclopedic knowledge – that’s not your job. Instead, your job is to be able to facilitate answers.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

I came across this fascinating piece on A Wealth of Common Sense about the Dunning-Effect, which is when people develop overconfidence in the face of ignorance. Basically, rather than admit a knowledge gap – even to ourselves – we humans will often double down on our belief that we’re correct.

This can lead to costly oversights – such as in the example used in the study where people who had recently filed for bankruptcy rated their competence in financial matters markedly higher than other respondents. It can also lead to us making fools of ourselves, as in the respondents in the Jimmy Kimmel Live video clip embedded in the same post.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is the same bias that keeps us nodding our heads when we don’t know what someone’s talking about, or not asking questions when we’re confused by project requirements or a concept in a meeting. Rather than making us look smart, however, it all too often burns us in the end.

Admitting you don’t know gives you credibility

Pretending to know answers when you don’t can – counterintuitively – erode your credibility.

Get one wrong? Your team will lose confidence in your previous answers. After all, if you steered them wrong this once, so it’s likely you’ve done it before. Simply admitting that you don’t know the answer will increase your perception as a reliable manager, and give people greater faith in your past answers.

It should be praiseworthy to simply admit that you don’t know right? But the problem with that is it doesn’t exactly help the person with the question.

So what do you do when you don’t know the answer?

  • Follow up with the answer: Turn an information gap into a homework assignment. Saying “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll run some numbers and get back with you this afternoon,” shows that you’re proactive and helpful.
  • Provide an answer – with qualifications: Maybe you know enough to get them started, but if something’s not your area of expertise, it’s totally fine to provide as much information as you have, with the qualification that you’re not the expert.
  • Search for the right questions: Dig a little deeper into the question and you might discover a different angle of approach to the problem – and a crucial way to pry it apart.
  • Refer them to a better source: Maybe this is a question better answered by Human Resources, or the Marketing Department. Tell the asker who would be a better source to answer their question, and offer to get them in touch.

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