“I Don’t Know” is Your Superpower

Written By: Melissa Centers

We all know them: the people who spend a lot of time and energy trying to tell you how much they know. Self-declared experts with the typical communication style that leads with “I’m so awesome. Have I told you how awesome I am?” Translation: “I know everything and I’ve done it all.”

But what if we all considered leading with curiosity? Instead of setting out to prove what we know, accept the likelihood that there is probably a lot more that we do not know: facts, context, other ideas or ways of doing things, etc.

Even with our advanced degrees or years of experience, we cannot know everything.

But why are we all so intent on trying to hide that?

“I don’t know” creates the opportunity to learn and grow

One of the most critical leadership skills is approaching the world with curiosity. Curiosity enables new ideas, a better understanding of current and future challenges, and a spirit of lifelong learning that creates energy among the team to pursue new things.

How can we put curiosity into action? By asking questions of everyone at every level and valuing those responses equally.

Things like:

  • Why do we do it this way?
  • How does that work?
  • How would you approach this problem?
  • What are the risks of your solution and how would you address them?
  • How can we address this differently and more efficiently?
  • Are there new technologies that might enable the same result?

One of the tips I share with students that I mentor as they enter the workforce:

Pretend you are a journalist trying to “break” a major story. Act with a sense of urgency. Ask thoughtful questions that are open-ended enough to allow discovery to happen. Pretend you know less than you know, and if you know nothing, even better! Continuously refine your understanding through interaction so that when you try to explain it to your grandma, you can do it in a way that your grandma understand.

In addition, by modeling the behavior of admitting what you don’t know, you are empowering others to do the same, ensuring that you get more accurate and unvarnished information in the first place. Combine this transparent team dynamic with the opportunity to learn the unknown together and you have a recipe for exceptional performance.

But curiosity is more than just expanding understanding. What is the “long game” related to being curious? The development of a more well-rounded understanding and critical transferable skill sets.

These transferable skill sets have to come from somewhere. Usually, it is exposure to new areas and ideas, responsibility for different functions, and the ability to issue spot effectively by asking the right questions of the right people. All of these start from a place of not knowing and a comfort with inexperience. However, once the new talents are in place, you will be better prepared for that coveted executive job.

“One of the most critical leadership skills is approaching the world with curiosity.”

“I don’t know” protects you from assumptions

I’ll give you a hint:

brown horse

Photo by Virginia Long on Unsplash

One of the easiest ways to avoid assumptions is to start with the premise that you don’t know everything. You will be amazed at how many things you assumed that aren’t true at all. The number of businesses that make bad strategic decisions, end up underwater, pay large fines, miss critical opportunities by not listening to customers, or fail altogether based on poor assumptions is staggering.

Instead, as is so common in leadership texts but still rarely done: ask questions, listen carefully, and ask more questions based on what you hear. With each clarifying question, everyone in the conversation is more likely to arrive at a common understanding. That common understanding can enable better results, and more team engagement along the way.

“I don’t know” shows confidence and is the ultimate cure for imposter syndrome

What is it? Imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is characterized by an individual “feel[ing] that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them.”

Did you know…

Seventy-five percent of executive women report having personally experienced imposter syndrome at certain points in their career.

And “there is now a mountain of evidence that men experience imposter syndrome just as much as women.”

Most leadership experts suggest things like getting a mentor, finding a supportive environment to work in, and reassessing how we view our skills in context as critical tools for overcoming imposter syndrome.

However, I suggest embracing your “I don’t know” and allowing it to relieve the other symptoms. No one probably knows; they are all just pretending that they do to impress someone else, and they are all secretly worried that someone is going to discover their “secret.” That’s a lot of energy to waste on worry and apprehension about being discovered. If you recast that mindset to embrace your own “I don’t know,” you can rededicate your energy to the value of discovery and the fringe benefits that come from being a curious person.

“There is no silver bullet to leadership, just like there isn’t a silver bullet in strategy.”

“I don’t know” can protect your brand (and your company)

So often, companies (and even governments) get caught up in issues that could have easily been prevented if someone, somewhere along the way would have raised their hand and said “I don’t know what to do here” instead of trying to hide the issue that ultimately ended up on the front page of the New York Times. Remember the Pentagon Papers? How might Watergate have ended differently if someone had just said “I don’t know what to do.”

In so many business failures, there is a lack of “I don’t know” around key areas of the business, including understanding customers. Remember Laura Ashley? And what about my high school employer, Radio Shack? How might things have been different if their leadership had admitted what they didn’t know, put on their journalist hats and just listened?

“I don’t know” enables the team to thrive

Another critical area of leadership is the ability to locate, engage, retain and inspire quality talent. Once you find these “superstars,” the last thing you want to do is stifle them with your opinions about how to get things done or train them to be “Mini-mes.”

Instead, one of the keys to enabling talent is to give them a wide berth to achieve by focusing on the goals or results expected instead of the how, and inspiring their individual curiosity which could take your strategy in a new and exciting direction.

“I don’t know” allows you to build strong, trusting relationships

There is no silver bullet to leadership, just like there isn’t a silver bullet in strategy. Both rely heavily on your understanding of the landscape and context you operate within, the ability to establish a realistic vision that others can buy into, and enabling the best possible results by reducing friction in your operations, removing obstacles to your delivery, and communicating complex concepts in a simple way that allows everyone to make decisions and understand the implications of those decisions.

When I was still in information technology, and consulting for an infrastructure company, I was regularly engaged in projects I did not know a lot about. For example:

Client: “We need you to lead the team to build a SAN.”

Me: “What’s a SAN?”

Client: “Storage Area Network.”

Me: “What’s that?”

But due to their prior experiences with me and the very nature of all technologies being new and confusing early on, my clients saw something that I didn’t even realize at the time: I didn’t know, but I could be counted on to tell the truth about what was working and what wasn’t, the curiosity to figure it out, and the willingness to build a capable and talented team of people who did know in order to get the job done. I kept getting more projects because that trust-based relationship is what mattered most to them.

“I don’t know” takes the board from good to great

Even in the boardroom, “I don’t know” is a powerful key to understanding the risks and concerns within an organization and getting a true view of the management team and their capabilities. Board members who focus on asking questions that facilitate the information flow from management outside of the static board reports, and seek to understand the true “big picture” will likely not be surprised and can focus their energies and experience on helping the company figure it out.

So the next time an opportunity presents itself, proudly raise your hand and say “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out together.”

Read this article and many others by Melissa Centers on her blog: PrepOverCoffee

About the author » Melissa Centers

Melissa Centers is a board member, consultant, and attorney who provides strategic advice in a variety of disciplines to boards, executives, and companies of all sizes. Before entering private practice, Melissa was the Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary at State Auto Insurance, a $2 billion publicly traded insurance company. She has also held executive roles in IT, communications, marketing, human resources, government affairs, audit, and of course, legal and compliance. When not helping clients, Melissa is a writing enthusiast and teacher. You can check out her business blog below.

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