As a leader or as a salesperson, your employees or customers expect you to have the answers. However, there’ll times when you may not know the answer to difficult questions right away. To avoid losing credibility and causing others to question your knowledge, it’s important to know how to handle the situation properly.
Folks Don’t Want to Confess to Not Knowing Enough
Having quick, confident answers is often seen as a mark of proficiency and leadership. For that reason, you may be conditioned to believe that “not knowing” makes you look exposed. You may assume that any gaps in knowledge should be veiled at all costs.
Rather than admitting that you don’t have an answer to a tough question, you may tend to make something up on the fly, fast-talk, or stumble your way with a dubious response. Rookie salespeople are particularly prone to this—they tend to give answers they believe their prospective customers want to hear.
Consequently, in trying to look strong, you’ll end up looking weak.
The Power of Saying “I Don’t Know”
The ability to recognize one’s limitations is an underappreciated intellectual skill. A humble individual is all too aware of the confines of his/her corpus of knowledge.
Intellectual growth can come about only when the humble person can admit to not knowing enough and opening up to the possibilities of learning.
In an interview at the Wharton school, Carol Bartz (the no-nonsense, swearword-spewing former executive at Yahoo, Autodesk, and Sun Microsystems) commented about this false bravado and misplaced poise:
The phrase, “I don’t know” is in fact a strength. I have a [nonsense] detector that is really good, really good. And I love playing with people who rubbish me. I would much prefer if someone told me, “Not only do I not know the answer, but I wouldn’t even know how to get it. Could we talk about how, and I can get back to you?” That is so, so powerful. I don’t care how old or seasoned or how high you are in an organization. Saying “I don’t know” can give you the vulnerability you need to lead better.
Idea for Impact: Don’t Be Afraid to Admit What You Don’t Know
Great leaders know when to admit “I don’t know” and how to follow up appropriately. When you’re tempted to misrepresent your understanding, try to declare,
- “I don’t know the answer at this time, but I will get back to you.”
- “Good point. I don’t know, but I’m interested in what you think.”
- “I don’t know, but let’s consult someone who knows more about this.”
- “I don’t know, but I can do more research and incorporate those risk factors in our contingency plans.”
To be appreciated as a reliable, confident, and ethical person, be willing to admit that you don’t have all the answers. This act of humility and the readiness to seek the help of others can inspire greater trust within your team and encourage others to follow suit.
Be honest and direct when dealing with people, and they’ll respect you even if you aren’t able to answer all their questions.