Can managers say "I don't know"?

Feb 15, 2021

6 mins

Can managers say "I don't know"?

As a manager, your job encompasses areas such as planning, leading, and organizing. And when it comes to leadership, you should be able to set priorities, motivate team members and diffuse energy, empathy and trust. None of this necessarily requires having all the answers, does it? Nevertheless, leaders often believe they should always give quick, clear, and confident responses, and equate their competence with hiding any gaps in knowledge. Saying “I don’t know” seems taboo.

Why is it so hard to admit you don’t know something? Should you be honest with your team or bluff it out, no matter what? We spoke to management experts to find out the best ways to react.

Admitting our ignorance can make us feel uncomfortable

Every manager has been there. You’re happily working away when a question or situation pops up and throws you off entirely. You haven’t a clue what to do or say. As you scramble to think how to respond, the inevitable question arises: “Should I admit I don’t know or try to maneuver an answer?”

Sarah Rozenthuler, the founder of Bridgework, a management consulting firm, says that admitting we don’t know when we’re in a managerial position can be awkward and uncomfortable. “We often base our value on what’s tangible—the insights we bring, the expertise we have, the title on our email signature,” she said. “Saying ‘I don’t know’ can therefore make us feel vulnerable as if we’re skating on thin ice. It breaks a habit we’ve grown accustomed to: giving an opinion, making an assertion, sharing a judgment.”

A way to keep control of the situation?

You might also be reluctant to share the fact that you don’t know the answer for fear of losing control of the situation. But Rozenthuler believes that acting in this way only allows the manager to hold on to the illusion of control. “We often maintain a sense of legitimacy by pointing to our credentials or competency. When this external orientation happens repeatedly, it can be to the detriment of developing deeper confidence. It stops us from cultivating a truer sense of self-belief that flows from inside us,” she said.

As a manager, you may believe this makes you look like a good leader, but instead it undermines legitimacy, explains Ros Toynbee, the founder of Ros Toynbee Coaching. “Sometimes a team needs to be told, ‘I don’t know the answer but let’s work it out together,’” she said. “Most people I coach appreciate honesty and sincerity more than being kept in the dark.”

Acting as if you always have the answer can give the impression you’re a know-it-all, explains Rozenthuler. “We might take ourselves to be informed, but we can come across to others as arrogant or self-absorbed,” she said. It also puts us at risk of overlooking the insights given by team members. “In our increasingly complex and interconnected world, none of us has the final story on any given situation. Diverse perspectives and unexpected nuances can really strengthen our decision-making,” said Rozenthuler.

A proof of humbleness

What if sharing our lack of knowledge showed humility rather than vulnerability? It may be tempting to put on a brave face, especially in times of crisis, but Rozenthuler’s advice is to stay authentic: it allows other team members to connect with you. “You might not know exactly what to do, but you can still transmit an air of calm and reassurance to others. You might say, ‘We’ll get through this’ or acknowledge that these are tough times and we all need to pull together,” she said.

Toynbee agrees. Trust is built when people are sincere and there is self-awareness about what you know and don’t know,” she said. “No one likes working for a know-it-all boss who has been promoted above his or her ability but lords it over everyone else.”

This is part of practicing intellectual humility, a mindset which, according to psychologists, “speaks to people’s willingness to reconsider their views, to avoid defensiveness when challenged, and to moderate their own need to appear ‘right’”.

It’s part of the learning process

Moreover, admitting we don’t know when we’re a manager is important because it can spur us on to learn new things. “It’s part of having a ‘growth’ rather than a ‘fixed’ mindset,” said Rozenthuler. “This helps us to stay flexible, particularly when we fail at something. Questioning our abilities leaves us open to stretching ourselves into new territory rather than feeling defeated by our own sense that we’ll never change.”

The term “growth mindset” was conceived by psychologist Carol Dweck and refers to the idea that “an individual’s capacities and talents can be improved over time”. Toynbee explains that it’s important to be in this mindset and open to receiving feedback from our team. And acting on it is essential for career development and business success”, she said.

When you share that you don’t know something it also signals to your team that you are all in the same boat and helps to build a trustworthy relationship. “It creates psychological safety and allows team members to take risks and also share what they don’t know,” said Rozenthuler. “When people go out on a limb to be vulnerable in front of one another, it encourages others to do the same. Research has found that successful teams operate in this way as it builds trust and enables collaboration.”

Should saying ‘I don’t know’ remain exceptional?

More than questioning whether you should say “I don’t know”, what matters is what, when, and how you communicate as a manager. Toynbee suggests the following: “If further information will appear at a later date, then communicate the timeline by which things will be clearer, and if something is not known, say you don’t know yet.” In fact, giving information helps to reduce uncertainty and therefore fear in employees, she says. Toynbee doesn’t recommend delaying bad news either. “If [bad news is] given early and well, like redundancies, it gives people time to process the news and take action,” she said.

Finding a balance between transparency and responsibility

Can you really fulfill your managerial responsibilities and still be totally transparent? Rozenthuler believes it is possible to find a balance. To do so, she advises carving out regular reflection times to review your responsibilities and your communication. “Ask yourself: what’s been working and what hasn’t? Where might I need to make some adjustments? What resources could I draw on to navigate forwards?” she said. It is also helpful to take a step back from what is expected of you. For Toynbee, it’s important that managers stop chasing the idea of knowing everything.

“The reality is that most people are winging it to a greater or lesser extent in their jobs, especially if they are new, and especially if they have responsible roles in organizations. The rise of imposter syndrome bears this out,” she said.

However, attitudes are evolving, especially with increasing digitalization and the normalization of remote working. “Now ‘becoming a better learner’ is more important than relying on subject matter expertise or even management training received in the past,” she said.

So what’s the best way to say ‘I don’t know’?

You’re ready to admit you don’t have the answer, but how should you do it? Toynbee recommends that you say it directly and then ask your team for their opinion. She suggests the following: “I don’t know but let’s explore. What do you think we could do?’”

For Toynbee, a perfect example in the pandemic is when managers have gone to frontline staff to ask for their ideas about how to take the business online, and how the company pivoted and thrived. “Older generations in the workplace can learn so much by being open to the Millennials and Gen Z who have a handle on the world that older generations just can’t see,” she said.

Another good way of saying “I don’t know” is to frame it as a positive, explains Rozenthuler. “Don’t just leave it as a statement. Say ‘Let me get back to you’ and set a date when you will do so. Share where your curiosity is and what you want to find out more about. You might also state clearly what you do know as a way of giving a balanced response,” she said.

In life, not just at work, we don’t have all the answers—and that’s OK. After all, we’re not superhuman! So the best way to deal with it is to get something positive out of the situation. This means approaching the matter with curiosity, being patient with yourself, and taking a step back from what is within your control. Being authentic will also give you unexpected strength*. For Rozenthuler, real confidence is about having the courage to say ‘I don’t know’ when that’s what’s true in this moment”*. Rather than making you vulnerable, this will boost your self-belief and help you remain a level-headed leader. And you can bet your team will thank you for it!

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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