In my experience…it’s ok to say “I don’t know”
I don’t know anyone who knows everything. However, I know people who think they know everything. I certainly don’t know everything…about anything.
I once had a boss tell me that as a consultant it’s unacceptable to say you don’t know the answer. Given the time and context of that discussion as well as the hyper-competitive nature of consulting and the required self-promotion and alignment with high performers that existed (still exists?), I understood that perspective.
Sometimes I enjoyed the challenge…always attempting to have an answer to everything…because it required quick thinking, on-the-spot poise and the ability say nearly anything in a believable manner. While sometimes fun and definitely a good learning / skill-building experience, over time my perspective has shifted.
In my experience, it’s ok to say “I don’t know”. The vast majority of the time I follow that statement with “Let me find out and get back to you”, or something to that effect. Interestingly, I’ve never been penalized for that answer. I suspect that if I were to use it too much and / or for topics about which I should be prepared to answer questions, then it would be a less accepted phrase. If you don’t abuse it, it’s an effective tool.
Let’s use consultants as the example here. This isn't always the case, but I’m aware of occasions where consultants believe they themselves are super-human, whereas clients believe the consultants are sub-human. I wonder if anyone out there has ever experienced that phenomenon, from either perspective.
As a consultant , I’ve found that when I truly don’t know the answer to a client’s question and I’m genuine in my “I don’t know, let me find out and get back to you” response, it’s well accepted and even appreciated. It’s especially effective when I say it in front of client personnel who know I’m a consultant and they aren’t the individual(s) I directly work for. The reason is that sometimes the expectation (to my point above) is that consultants think they know everything and will give a BS answer just to appear better than everyone else. Whereas when I say “I don’t know” I’ve been told that it humanizes me and I appear to be (because I am) a colleague working toward the collective goals of the team or organization.
Regardless of whether you’re a consultant or not, I’ve found that saying “I don’t know” and digging a little deeper, rather than giving an incomplete or purely reactive answer, can result in important insight for you. Generally speaking, if you’re asked a question and you don’t know the answer and are given the chance to look into it, there could be opportunity in it for you.
You might learn about new or updated initiatives, goals or organizational changes. If you’re being asked about those, this is your chance to add your voice and influence to the conversation. Obviously, this “opportunity” isn’t always going to present itself, but it doesn’t hurt to have thought about the possibility beforehand.
In conclusion, the more experience I gain the more comfortable I am with what I do and don’t know and with communicating that to whoever I’m working with. I’ve found more value and positive response in saying “I don’t know” than in making something up.
Special thanks to Andy Simpson, Ashish Patel, Brandon Eibes, Brandon Gerhartand John Prinz, all amazing consultants who were my teammates for 5+ years and who were willing to say “I don’t know”.