Admission: If You Don’t Know The Answer, Be The First To Say It!

“All I know is that I know nothing.”
– Socrates

Perception is a very funny thing.
In business, perception can be everything.

It can be the thing that shoots you to the top (in some cases way too quickly) and it could be the thing that puts your reputation on a downward spiral – often through no fault of your own or at least out of proportion with reality.

In the modern world, where networking and communication happen quicker and on a wider scale than ever before, perception can spread quicker than ever before too.

This article is not specifically about perception but rather about one of it’s root causes.

This article is about a very specific point which is one way to avoid making a bad impression (leading to poor and often unfair perception about you spreading).

This is about something very simple that a lot of us actually really struggle with.

It’s so simple yet a lot of us really struggle with these three words:

I don’t know.

Now it doesn’t have to be put like that. There are lots of ways of telling people you don’t know something which will actually make your reputation BETTER, not worse. We’ll go into these below. First of all, let me clarify the real point of this article, it’s this bit of the title:

Be The First To Say It!

Obviously if you don’t know the answer to something, you don’t tell anyone that you don’t know the answer, but then nobody finds out and it wasn’t important anyway, then your reputation will not suffer in any way, there will be no bad perceptions created and everyone will go about their business as usual.

When Trust Starts To Break Down

The point is that if you give someone the distinct impression that you know something which you don’t know at all (however big or small) and they later find out the truth – i.e. that you actually don’t know, then that’s when trust starts to break down and bad perceptions are created. If they find out from some other means than yourself that you don’t know, then they will most likely wonder why they didn’t hear it from you. Depending upon your relationship they may feel deceived. They may wonder what other impressions that they had about you were wrong.

A Brief Example – The Head Of IT

I once worked in a very big corporation (over 100,000 employees). In this organisation, the global head of the Information Technology (IT) department, let’s call him Stan, was a great example of being the first to say it.

When I first met Stan, it was in a rather important board meeting. All of the most senior people of the corporation were there. I was there in the capacity of trusted advisor to one of those senior people, who, like most of the others in the room was effectively a key client of Stan (because Stan was responsible for providing the IT infrastructure and solutions for all of the areas of the corporation).

I was quite shocked when quite early on in the meeting I heard Stan say, without any prompting: “I have to say, IT really screwed up there. We have to fix that.”

Later in the meeting, Stan also gave the response (not so shocking as this was a response to a direct question) “We don’t have the answer yet, let me get back to you.”

After over a year of working at that company and being in a lot of such meetings, it occurred to me that Stan often volunteered that he or his department didn’t have answers or had made mistakes. The kind of comments that a lot of people in similar positions wouldn’t dream of saying for fear of looking incompetent.

The result was quite the opposite.

Though I do remember being quite shocked the first time I heard Stan in a meeting saying that he’d screwed up, my lasting impression of Stan is one of someone who is good at his job, trustworthy, comfortable in his position and in his own skin and a good communicator. He always managed to give the impression ‘we’re in this together, I’m on your side’ (even if you didn’t want him to).

What Can We Learn From This Example?

What Stan understood very well were two things:

1. People often like blaming IT for things

2. It’s better that the blame comes from me before it comes from others

The first point is about Stan understanding the basic nature of the business he was in and his responsibility as a provider of IT solutions.

Put Yourself In Control

The second point is the really key point to this article and it’s that by being the first to say it, Stan gave himself the chance to be the only one who mentioned the problem (not always, but most of the time). By doing this he also put himself in control of the problem, the size of it and what emphasis to give it. By being the first to say it he gave the impression he was in touch with what was going on, he was concerned about his clients.

Be the first to say if you don’t know and put yourself more in control.

If someone were to take the problem further, Stan’s only option then would be to agree with them as it was a point he himself had raised. This is a much stronger position than being at all defensive which hardly ever comes across well in senior corporate meetings.

On the second point above, when Stan said “We don’t have the answer yet, let me get back to you.”, nobody challenged him for a date by which he would get back to them (which almost certainly would have been asked if someone else in the meeting had raised the problem).

By being the first to raise the problems, Stan put himself in control and was seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’.

Stan often raised problems in meetings that nobody really cared about. He over played this trick sometimes, but he still gave the impression that he was on top of things and was challenged by the other senior stakeholders very little. Due to his approach, when Stan was challenged on anything it was often in a very friendly and polite way. Due to his approach stan would get comments like “You’re probably already on top of this but could you just…”, “Did you know about…”, “Not sure if you were aware of…” rather than the complaints, accusations and attacks that some heads of IT get.

Now Do Something About It

Final point: obviously having raised these issues, Stan had to go away and do something about them. You may be thinking that he is therefore creating more work than is necessary. Not at all. If he is exaggerating a problem that doesn’t really exist in his area, then it is being taken care of anyway and he can just check on that and make report back to his stakeholders that everything is fine. If he is highlighting a problem that is bigger than he claimed, then he is drawing appropriate attention and resources to it. In both cases, because he is raising the problems himself for his own area, much less overhead and ‘noise’ is created than if someone else raised the issue.

Convinced? I hope so. Obviously it’s a question of balance (saying “I don’t know” ALL of the time is obviously taking the idea a little too far), but being comfortable with what you don’t know is not only about honesty and integrity, but it puts you on a path to finding out with the knowledge, help and support of those around you.

The Consequences Of Pretending

Giving the impression you have an answer to something which you don’t, whether directly or indirectly is effectively pretending. You need to manage the expectations of those around you so that you can exceed them. Have you ever been in a situation where you allowed someone to believe you knew much more than you did, that you were happy with something you weren’t, that you had finished something you hadn’t or that you were in control of a situation that you weren’t? Was that a comfortable feeling? Have you ever been in a situation where some bad perception got out of hand just because you let someone’s wrong impression go unchecked? It can happen.

How To Say I Don’t Know

Here are some tips for remaining positive whilst being the first to say you don’t know the answer to something and in the process creating an even better impression:

  1. Just say it. Just say ‘I don’t know’, but do it with confidence and a smile on your face. Not a dumb smile, a confident smile. Convey the impression that you don’t know but it’s not a problem and you intend to find out.
  2. Ask for Help & Advice – Asking for help and advice empowers people and can be very powerful if done the right way. Saying to someone ‘I need your help and advice’ or ‘I could really use your help and advice’ puts them in a position of trust, your trust and most of the time if you ask this in the right way, people will be happy to help you.
  3. Be Comfortable In Your Own Skin – nobody has all the answers. Wise people realise that the more they know, the more they have to learn. See life (and work) this way. By opening up the doors to learn knew things and admitting that you don’t have all the answers you will be seen as and will be a bigger and better person.
  4. Network and Use Influence – successful people in business network, and they do it to get answers to problems quicker than they would have managed on their own. Learn how to network and influence and in the process be up front about where others can help you, at the same time offering your help.
  5. Be Confident – be confident about what you do know and have to offer. At the same time be confident about what you don’t know. Not knowing something is just an opportunity to learn, nothing more, nothing less. See it as that, and feel free to seek out the answers to continue to grow and develop. Don’t hide from what you don’t know.
  6. Praise Others – we all have different strengths and weaknesses. When you don’t know the answer, be open about it and ask for help. When you get the help, give credit where credit is due and praise those that helped you. People will be far more inclined to help you if you openly give credit and promote others, being comfortable doing so. An added bonus is that even though you were the one asking for help, by being comfortable praising those that helped you, you will often be seen as more authoritative yourself.

But What If I’m Supposed To Know?

Just admit it. Say “I really should know this but…” or something similar. be diplomatic about it, confident, but honest. You have to rid yourself from blame and embrace the idea of trying to address anything that’s missing (whether gaps in your knowledge, control, happiness, resources… whatever constitutes the ‘answer’ in this situation that you should know, but you don’t).

Admitting it and being open and honest about it puts you on the path to addressing the situation and is far, far better than trying to hide the fact that you don’t know.

A couple of points on the above article – 1) the above list is far from exhaustive 2) there is a question of balance to get it right, even though Stan in the example actually did do this a LOT, not everybody could get away with it to that extent. The point is about integrity and not allowing anyone to be deceived – only you will know for your situation when to find that balance.

Do you know any other ways of telling people ‘I don’t know’ in a positive way?

Have you ever ended up in an awkward situation because you pretended to know more than you did?

How often are you the first to say it if you don’t have the answer (particularly when others think you do or you should)?

Image Credit: Sean Dreilinger


Admission: If You Don’t Know The Answer, Be The First To Say It! — 5 Comments

  1. I like what you have said about the consequence of pretending. A lot of people really want to impress others by pretending to be smart.

    • Hey Mika,

      thanks I’m glad you like the article. Yep, I’m afraid the pretending thing is something that most people do to a lesser or greater extent, often without even realizing it – because we tend to be a little too worried about what others think (and are often wrong about what they might be thinking in any case),

      thanks for the comment,

      take care & best wishes,

      • That’s true. Some would might impress you on some ways, but some might take it seriously that they will notice that you are just showing off.

  2. Hey Alan,

    Sometimes it is about pride or appearing to be the one that just doesn’t get it. Especially in a meeting where others seem to understand – who wants to be the idiot, right?

    I’ve found that when I’ve not understood something and asked for clarity, others have admitted they were unclear too. It takes one person, doesn’t it?

    However there have been times where I haven’t spoken up and have ended up taking twice as long to do something or understand something, simply because I didn’t have the balls to say something!

    Great article, Alan.

    – Razwana

    • Hi Razwana,

      many thanks for the comment – you’re right, and that’s exactly what people are worried about, being seen as the idiot. But it’s rarely as bad as they think it is.

      So it is often about having the balls to say I don’t know, but sometimes it can also be about noticing subtle shifts in perception and correcting them if they’re wrong.

      I saw a really bad example once where an MD ‘vouched’ for a project manager, he went around telling everyone she was taking care of something and she hadn’t stopped him in a meeting when he was singing her praises (because she liked it). She should have noticed that he had assumed too much about her, in the end he had effectively built her reputation up and she couldn’t live up to it. Through no fault of her own she was seen as this shining star and then suddenly people were shocked when she didn’t deliver to some of these expectations she didn’t even know about.

      It’s a really simple point, but can be really damaging if unchecked. We should always act with honesty and integrity. Asking for clarity is almost always a good move. Shortcuts, pretending you know when you really don’t and allowing false impressions may work in the short term, but they rarely do in the long term.

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