Those 3 little words….in business








Ah yes, another smarmy blog distilling the complexities of business into overly simplistic sound bites. Yeah, but I try to be authentic at least….

So – here’s a bellwether indicator for you leaders and managers out there. When was the last time you said those three little words to a co-worker, employee, and your boss? Yup – THOSE words.

“I Don’t Know”. 

Some people are really comfortable with this ‘admission’ to peers, but not so much with direct reports, and just about never with their boss. There’s a deep emotionally-embedded idea that not knowing an answer is indicative of a lack of competence, or potentially even leadership qualifications. Yet the truth is quite the opposite! It does take quite a bit of self-confidence and trust to ‘admit’ you don’t have the answer, but in my experience, the best employees are the ones who are comfortable with acknowledging that truth, and most importantly, can FIND the answer!

I believe there are variations on how to interpret “I don’t know”, depending on the situation. With peers, observing the willingness of the team to be candid with one another is a great way to measure the maturity and health of the team. (The whole forming, storming, norming, performing cycle). If you never hear the team say this within their internal interactions, something is wrong. Lack of trust is often the primary culprit, and that’s the piece of string to start tugging on.

When the situation is a direct reports asking a question of their supervisor, this is a prevalent problem. Managers don’t want to be seen as incompetent, and view their primary role to be the escalation point for their team with the knowledge to resolve any and all questions.


One of two things will happen if you (supervisor/manager) take this approach. You will either a) garner the pointy-headed Dilbert boss reputation without knowing or intending it (your employees aren’t stupid and will know if you are BS’ing the answer) or b) you will create a co-dependent working relationship with your staff, where they will see you as the easiest way to get answers vs. thinking for themselves and developing troubleshooting skills. Good luck ever taking a vacation again, and good luck in scaling your team. This is a tough one – I’ve learned it the very hard way, and STILL have to bite my tongue at times. Just because you DO know the answer, doesn’t necessarily mean you should volunteer it. There’s no need to be disingenuous though. “Well, I have some ideas, but what do YOU think we should do?” is a fine way to accomplish the goal.

But if you really don’t know, there is serious value in people learning, functioning independently, and frankly, it will help build your team’s confidence if they see you being candid. They will also learn a hell of a lot more! Of course, it’s much harder to take credit for your team’s work if you’ve already gone on record as not being an omnipotent genius, but if that’s the core of the hesitation, well, this article isn’t going to do you any good anyway.

For the last scenario (being candid with your boss) can in some ways be both the easiest as well as the hardest one to master. It’s pretty obvious that rolling the dice and providing a BS answer is a CLM (career-limiting maneuver!), but it’s also pretty clear to most that often times the very clear expectation is that you DO know the answer to question X. So what to do when caught flat-footed?

‘Fess up and get your sh&^t together. Hopefully, this will be more common early in a job where you’re still trying to figure out your boss’s expectations, but by the same token, that’s also when you should be in the honeymoon period and have the greatest tolerance for ignorance. But learn from that – clearly whatever you thought the expectations were isn’t a shared perspective. DO NOT turn into a politician and become hesitant, evasive, or answer a different question than asked. You will build tremendous credibility with your boss if he/she is confident that you will be transparent. I’m far more impressed with candor and follow-though to get answers than I am with someone who (appears to) know it all.

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” – Mark Cuban.

If you are that guy who truly HAS all the answers, consider what that means re: your professional development and growth. And if you DON’T, then don’t act like you do. By admitting ignorance, you build strength. 

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