Will Lukang, PMP, MBA, MASCL
When I was in elementary school, I remember that my teacher would ask us questions on topics she taught in the past. At that moment, my classmates who knew the answer raised their hands with excitement to be called to answer, while the others who did not know the answer felt like sinking into their seats to hide. Well, I’m one of them (the one sinking in their seat). Murphy’s Law has it that the teacher will invariably call upon the student who’s trying to hide. Guess what? The student would either not answer or say I don’t know. The teacher would then frown and show she was upset.
The trend goes on from elementary through high school, then from high school and through college. In a way, we were programmed to learn and have the answer, otherwise we disappoint someone. Worse yet, by not knowing the answer, we demonstrate that we are not intelligent or not at the same level as everyone else. In the end, people draw their conclusion about us by our interaction and our ability to respond to questions that are asked of us.
In a way, the same pattern of behavior permeates in the workplace and when we work for quite some time, we are expected to know a lot, if not everything, about the things we do. When we attend meetings or participate in discussions, people tend to expect that we have all the answers. Therefore when we are asked questions that we are not familiar with, some people give an answer that is not accurate for fear of being looked upon as incompetent. The drawback of the deep-rooted fear of being cast as incompetent will in the end doom your career. Over time people will realize that you are just covering things up and not being forthcoming.
As leaders, we need to foster an environment that allows people to say, “I don’t know,” but take responsibility for getting the answer and getting back to the person who asked the question. What is good in the past does not mean it should continue into the future. A leader understands that we don’t have all the answers and saying “I don’t know” is acceptable and you won’t be judged for failing to provide the answer. As long as you don’t answer “I don’t know” to every question.
In conclusion, sometimes our experience programmed us with certain behavior, but we need to understand that it does not have to be that way. We as leaders must encourage everyone to step outside their comfort zone and say “I don’t know” when they don’t really know the answer. We need to stress the importance of providing accurate answers and the value it brings to the people receiving the answers. So, the next time you are not sure about something, say “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll get back to you.” Say it and mean it and take responsibility. Think about it; it is more embarrassing if you provide the wrong answer. Nothing beats have the right information to make a decision. So, when in doubt, say you don’t know and do the right thing.
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