“I don’t know!”

I don't know

Like others, just before the holidays I watched in stunned disbelief as Leaf’s goalie Jonathan Bernier described the great Nelson Mandela’s amazing achievements “on and off the ice”. I mean I get it, he’s a professional athlete and neither his legacy nor his pay cheque hinge on being well-versed in politics or world issues. It is hard to imagine, though, that he would attend a charity event and not at least have googled the individual being honoured. What was really interesting on top of that, was the way he chose to go into so much added detail, rather than just admitting what he didn’t know, or even offering up that he was a truly inspiring man and vaguely leaving it at that.
Why can’t we just say the words “I don’t know”? We all know that nobody knows everything, so why is it so painful for us to admit when we’ve been hit with a question we don’t know the answer to? Is it pure ego? Cultural expectations? Where does it come from and when does it start? More importantly, is there a downside to living in a society, or working in an organization, where we don’t feel that it’s OK to say so when we don’t have the answer? Plenty of business articles advise never saying you don’t know, but there can be a deep cost to that attitude. It can certainly impact your credibility, as it did for Bernier, when his inaccuracies were so blatantly obvious, however, it can also cost the organization when decisions are being made based on information presented as fact, simply because the individual making the call didn’t want to admit that they didn’t have all the answers.
Three simple words – “I don’t know” lend themselves to all sorts of positive business outcomes such as seeking solutions, acquiring knew knowledge, gathering new information and collaborating with others. Just because you don’t know one thing, doesn’t mean you don’t know anything, and the same goes for your colleagues, superiors and direct reports. This radio podcast, from the individuals who brought us the documentary Freakonomics, is a fantastic listen, and offers insight into the roots of our fear of admitting when we don’t know an answer, as well as highlighting the negative impact this can have on businesses that foster it.

listen to the entire podcast here