In trying to transform culture, improve work processes and grow talent, sometimes I find that, among those I’m working with, the words “I don’t know” are among the scariest to utter. I can’t tell if my peers in the consultative professions had their ability to not know beaten out of them in graduate school or if they simply fear that, in these days when massive layoffs are a fresh memory, not-knowing puts one at risk of demotion or job loss. Yet, I’ve never, not once, had a client or boss fire me for not knowing the answer to a problem the very second it was asked. Additionally, I’ve learned that, when managing up, asking smart questions is virtually always more impressive than having all the answers. So, why the great fear of “I don’t know”?
I’m thinking that it has to do with the difference between ignorance and intransigence. Ignorance is something all human beings come by honestly. When I started working for architects a lentil was something I ate and a dentil had something to do with my teeth. Nowadays, I know better, but I only learned that because I was willing to risk looking stupid and ask. I’m often considered a smart person, not because I always know the answers, but because I can usually figure out where to find them. The irony is that finding answers requires me to let all kinds of people know that I don’t know so I can ask them to tell me. I have learned to do this because I now understand how good it makes other people feel to impart their wisdom. Believe me, giving people the gift of being able to be the smart one is a really great present.
I think the kind of “I don’t know” that’s unnerving in an employee or a consultant is really intransigence and falls into a category I think of as cultivated ignorance. The words come out “I don’t know” but what the person really means is “I won’t know.” Racism and Jingoism are obvious illustrations, but there are more subtle examples in our everyday life. There’s the “think on your feet” talker who didn’t take the time to prepare for a meeting and got caught not knowing because she didn’t do her homework. There’s the manager who ignores problems on a project because they require him to actively manage and engage with staff and he either hates or feels out of his depth with all that touchy-feely stuff. There’s your teflon colleague who sends you on a mission to relay a directive or complete a task and, if it backfires, claims she didn’t know you were going to do that, effectively throwing you under the bus.
I’m fine all day long with “I don’t know” because I get a kick out of imparting my wisdom as much as the next person. It’s “I won’t know” that makes me crazy. How do you tell the difference? Watch people’s behavior. Someone who truly doesn’t know something and then gets the answer, usually makes the change, gets over the hump, connects the dots, etc. It might take a few tries, but they get there. Someone who won’t know keeps making the same mistakes over and over and over again no matter how many ways and how many times they hear the answer. Ignorance and fear are temporary seatmates on a plane. Intransigence and fear are soulmates.