Why are “I don’t know” some of the hardest words to string together in the work environment?

Why do we feel we have to have the answer when a client or our boss asks us a question? Of course, we are hired as experts in our field but that doesn’t mean we know the answer to everything ever.

It only gets worse as you progress in your career. The more important your title and the more senior your position the more you are assumed to know stuff, have the answers.

I’m sure this is a scenario everyone can relate to. You are asked a question and you know you don’t have an answer. Instead of admitting you don’t know you open your mouth and talk. You speak whatever words come out and you hope it makes sense. You bullshit. It might be educated, it might be informed and it might even be intelligent, but it’s probably still bullshit.

Black and white.

Why do we feel like this? Why does saying “I don’t know” make us feel less smart?

It may stem from our education. At school we are taught things are right or wrong. Tick or cross. Each question has an answer. Everything was black and white. To be “smart” you had to know the answers. Admitting you didn’t know an answer was embarrassing.

So when we venture out into the world of work we feel like we shouldn’t admit to being wrong. We’re taught to believe that there is an answer to everything and that we should have it. But there isn’t and we shouldn’t.

We don’t work in a black and white world. We work in the grey.

Certainty is boring.

As designers if we only ever worked with what we were certain we knew our design work would be very dull. We’d apply the same answers to every problem we came across.

Luckily, the design process teaches us to make assumptions and test them. We’re encouraged to think broadly without boundaries. We’re supposed to get things wrong, to fail fast and learn form them. This is exciting, empowering and leads to groundbreaking design. Penicillin, Teflon, Coca Cola and Super Glue were all born from failed experiments.

Uncertainty feels good.

How does it make you feel when you know a colleague is making things up because they don’t have the answers? It’s frustrating, awkward and destroys the working relationship.

Being willing and able to say “I don’t know” is to be humble. It shows that you are self aware and understand the limits of your knowledge. You will gain respect for being honest and build a culture of trust with your team.

Best of all you will open up opportunities to learn. People like to teach and share knowledge. If you admit to your weaknesses people will help you learn. We all have so much to learn do and we should embrace every situation that allows us to do so.

“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”
– Richard Feynman

How to say “I don’t know”.

So you’re feeling good, tomorrow you’re going to go into work and say “I don’t know”. You’ll be respected, empowered and excited! Read on first.

On it’s own those three words aren’t the most useful response. Whilst we might not have an answer, it’s highly likely we’ll be able to provide some help. Here are a few better alternatives that will make you helpful in the workplace.

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”
Being prepared to put in the work to help someone out makes you a real team player.

“I don’t know, but you could look / talk to [insert useful information]”
When you don’t know but have some useful information you can pass on this information. You’ll be making yourself useful and and a knowledgeable member of the team.

“I don’t know. I’ve been trying to answer that myself.”
In the situation where you really can’t be of any help you can empathise with your colleague.

“I don’t know but I’ve got a couple of ideas we should test quickly.”
This is useful when you are asked for a solution to a problem. It acknowledges you don’t have an answer but makes progress towards getting one.

Next time you go to answer something you don’t have the answer for, take a second to think about your response. Try one of the above responses and become an even more useful and respected member of your organisation.