Leadership Tip #4: Admit When You Don’t Know

Someone asks you for information and you don't know the answer.

Maybe a senior manager asks, “When can the customers expect this particular feature?” Or your manager asks, “How does this specific architecture work for our product?” A colleague or a person you serve asks, “Why are we doing this?”

You might freeze and not be able to answer in the moment.  That's because all you know is that you don't know.

Can you admit you don't know? To anyone in your organization? How safe is it for you to admit you don't know?

We can't know everything about everything that occurs in the products, with the people, with anything.

You can try. If you're human, you can't know everything.

But, you say, I should know everything.

My $.02: You can't know everything. The more you think you need to know everything, the more you are likely to micromanage.

Instead, how can you make it safe for you—and everyone else—to admit when you don't know? That answer might depend on your culture.

Assess Your Culture

I happen to like Edgar Schein's description of culture:

  • What we can discuss (such as whether we can admit that we don't know)
  • How we treat each other (repercussions of when we explain we don't know)
  • What we reward (or punish, depending on not knowing)

I have a picture of Schneider's model of culture at the top of this post. The more we want stability, order, and predictability, as in the Control quadrant, the less likely we can say, “I don't know.”

I happen to like reality-based cultures. And I've certainly seen partnerships (in the Collaboration quadrant) where people wanted answers to the questions I posed above.

I prefer reality-based cultures because we always somehow deal with reality. The issue is not the request for the information. The issue is how do we get rewarded or punished for not having that information.

I do see organizational cultures that use the words of the Cultivation and the Competence cultures. However, they reward based on the Control and Collaboration cultures. (Your organization might be different.)

Rewards (or punishments) drive behavior. If you're not sure what kind of a culture you have, use the rewards to understand your particular culture.

Given your culture, consider your options to make it safe to admit when you don't know.

Consider These Options

You have several possible responses:

  1. Add a “yet” to your answer. “I don't know yet. I can learn that information in a day or so.”
  2. Explain that you are the wrong person to ask. “I trust the team to have that information. I'll check with the team/Product Owner/some other person who might know and get back to you.”
  3. When someone asks the “why” question, you might answer with. “Good question! I thought I knew, and let me check and get back to you.”
  4. For questions where the context matters, such as “How long should something take?” I like the consultant's answer, “It depends.”

Notice that for all answers, I assume the person asking the question has a good reason to want to know.

If you think the person doesn't have a good reason, you might ask, “Tell me more about why you want to know. I might be able to offer you different information.”

What if you still feel unsafe to consider these options.

Go meta. Work on the safety first.

Create Safety for Everyone to Admit Not Knowing

Most of the time, once people can select from the options above, they can create a safe environment where people can admit they don't know.

Not always.

If you don't think you can choose from the options, seek out someone you trust and check your data. “Do you think we are safe enough to admit when we don't know something?”

The other person might say, yes, no, or it depends.

  • If yes, you might ask the other person where they find their courage.
  • If no, consider collaborating to create more safety.
  • When it depends, see if the two of you can identify when it's safe and when not. Then see who you can enlist to increase the number of safe contexts and reduce the number of unsafe contexts.

The more we admit when we don't know something, the safer we make it for other people to also admit when they don't know.

Safety helps organizations in many ways:

  • You'll hear about small irritants before they become big problems.
  • Everyone can experiment and learn faster. They don't need perfect predictability.
  • The organization can move from needing lots of plans to more frequent replanning.

As I said in Practical Ways to Lead and Serve (Manage) Others, “… lack of safety drags the entire organization down. That’s one of the reasons people think management can exist without leadership. The leaders stick their necks out and ask for help, admit when they’re wrong, and experiment.”

Want to lead in your organization? Admit you're wrong and choose another alternative.

This is a part of the series of leadership tips.

2 thoughts on “Leadership Tip #4: Admit When You Don’t Know”

  1. Ray Dalio’s principles support an “idea meritocracy” where knowing what you don’t know and dealing well with what you don’t know are critical to the incredible culture of radical transparency at Bridgewater Associates.

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