“I don’t know”
There they are. Three words that can be hard to say for many professional workers and managers. But why is that? Do they make us vulnerable? Do they expose us to judgement? They can be interpreted as a sign of weakness and a threat to our credibility. After all, we are expected to be subject matter experts, leaders, and managers. Can we admit that we don’t know the answer?
During some recent reading, 13 Fatal Errors that Managers Make by Steven Brown, I found this concept linked to the idea of personal accountability. Brown’s thought is that an important aspect of accountability is being able to admit that we are not all-knowing. He points out that a mature manager will admit that they don’t know the answer to a problem/question and then recommend potential sources to find the answer to the team. In this way they help to guide and encourage the team to find the solution while at the same time showing a level of emotional maturity.
An important lesson.
The same concept can applied to non-managers as well. I’m reminded of an assignment early in my professional career. At the time, I was an intern in College working as a network administrator for a corporate network. There was a problem with a system (I don’t remember the exact details) one day and a service ticket was assigned to me. I spent a couple of business days trying to resolve the problem through a variety of techniques but I was not successful. Since I was now late on resolving the issue, my manager questioned me about my approach to solving the problem. I replied by explaining to him all of my theories and subsequent failures. Essentially, I was trying to show him my thought process and problem solving skills. My manager quickly informed me that my perseverance was admirable, but the customer was not able to perform their function. He coached me that it’s OK to admit that we don’t know the answer to a problem. The real trick is to know where to go find the answer.
Oh wait, no worries, “I’ll just Google it”.
Google didn’t exist when this happened. I’m glad it didn’t. The experience taught me a valuable lesson and definitely made an impression on me. Looking back, over 20 years later, I can see how it molded some of my professional and managerial style through the years. Many of the successes I’ve had during my career come not from what I knew, but from knowing who knew the answer. That creates collaboration, teamwork, and mutual respect in a professional environment. I still aim to show show perseverance for solving tough problems. But I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t the answer right away.