What are the three hardest words for a resourceful manager to say?
“I don’t know.”
Yep, you nailed it.
We’re afraid that by saying “I don’t know,” we’ll sound unprepared, naïve, or worse – incompetent.
But “I don’t know” (and its cousin, “I’m not sure”) are actually three of the strongest words good leaders can use.
When said in the right manner, those words project both confidence and intelligence.
Why They’re So Hard To Say
Stephen Dubner and Stephen Levitt, authors of the behavioral economics book Freakonomics, say that high-level managers feel they’re expected to know every answer to every question all the time.
It’s why we get paid the big bucks, right?
But saying “I don’t know” actually takes more courage than trying to hide behind excuses. It also opens us up to learning experiences and can work in our favor as managers.
“Simply saying [it] isn’t a solution,” Dubner says. “You have to figure out what you don’t know – and then work like a dog to learn.”
The Right Follow-Up
Saying “I don’t know” with credibility involves a bit of context, to provide whoever we’re addressing with an understanding as to why we’re telling someone we don’t know.
But it’s more than just bluffing or trying to impress someone. It shows you “actually care about the outcome and the truth,” Levitt says.
The right move is to show that you’re dedicated to finding the answer to solving the problem or provide the right information.
Writing for Forbes, Kristi Hedges, an executive coach, suggests emphasizing this by following up with, “That’s a good question, but I don’t want to give you a half answer. Let me get back to you,” or, “Let me tell you what I do know, and what I’m still learning.”
Try using these phrases or similar ones to follow up an “I don’t know”:
‘… But I will find out.’
You’re admitting you don’t have the answer immediately when asked a question. It shows others that you’re not afraid to appear vulnerable, and it reinforces the notion you’re confident you can find the right information or solution.
‘… So let’s put our heads together.’
When faced with questions, resourceful managers make sure the people they work with can help them come up with the right answers.
Enlisting the smart people on your team to come up with solutions gets them engaged and helps you succeed when you tap them for opinions or draw on their expertise.
‘… But I’ll ask someone who does.’
Good leaders get that there are others who know things they don’t and, rather than compete with them, they succeed by listening to and learning from them.
This response also shows you’re open to other ideas and perspectives and aren’t threatened when someone else has a better answer than you do.
‘… So let me think about what we did last time.’
Experience is a great teacher, especially when you’re faced with a problem you can’t figure out.
It’s smart to look into your own past or ask others in similar situations what worked for them when faced with the same type of problem.
‘… Why don’t we try this instead?’
Sometimes not having an answer is a blessing in disguise.
It forces us to start from the ground up, rather than relying too heavily on past information that could be outdated.
Knowledge is beneficial, but it also can make us blind to the nuances of a current problem.
It’s good to second-guess your understanding once in a while to make sure you’re on your toes.
The Bottom Line
Leaders who can’t admit they “don’t know” often lose respect. They risk making a bad situation worse.
People who respect your leadership will also respect when you admit you don’t have the answer to every question.
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Do you have a reliable “I don’t know” follow-up? Share it in our comments section.
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I really appreciated this article. I am new to an Executive Director position and during my training keep getting told “well, we did this in the past”. Using “Why don’t we try this instead” is perfect. Having background information on how a company or business previously did programs or processes is wonderful, however you have to be able to move forward and not be behind the times. Thank you!
Lisa McKale says
Mike Owens says
I frequently use a hybrid of, “I don’t know”. When faced with an unusual situation,with the strongest members of my team, I frequently say, “I’m not sure. What do you think?”. This promotes discussion, thought, and, “buy in”, from my team. I can’t recall a situation like that did not result in a positive experience.
John Walston says
Sounds like a winner to me!