I once worked with a manager who loved to whip out cool buzzwords. "Cones of precision." "Drill down." "Proactively expand silos." (Since times have changed, his favorites now probably include "first-mover advantage," "talent pipeline," and "parallelization.") 

He said a lot.

But he never really said anything.

Since leaders tend to cast large shadows, over time most of the people in his department started talking the same way -- especially when they didn't know what they were talking about. The less information or knowledge they had, the more they relied on jargon and management-speak

The result is what Bayes Business School dean Andre Spicer calls "noisy ignorance": People who lack knowledge about an issue yet still feel compelled to talk about it.

As Spicer writes in this extensive study of how empty conversation takes over organizations:

When ignorance is noisy, uninformed actors do not simply stay silent about what they don't know. Rather, they are compelled to speak about an issue of which they have little knowledge or understanding.

For instance, middle managers are often relatively ignorant about the work their subordinates are engaged with, but are under pressure to act as the leader by doing or saying something.

They fall back upon generic management speak rather than engage with the people they manage in language they find meaningful. 

According to Spicer, noisy ignorance is contagious: People start to "indulge weak claims from others in return for indulgence of their own weak claims."

When I don't know the answer, instead of saying, "I don't know. Let me find out," I hide behind some jargon. When you don't know the answer, you do the same. The last thing we want is to let people think we don't know.

Over time, people start to allow what Spicer calls "bullshit" (a technical term for "empty and misleading statements that are processed in a shallow way and lead to surface-level agreement") to pass without assessment or question.

And before long, no one says anything -- especially when put on the spot -- of real value.

Or questions what anyone else says.

So how can you eliminate noisy ignorance?

Start casting a different leadership shadow.

The Power of "I Don't Know"

Imagine you're Spicer's "manager relatively ignorant about the work subordinates are engaged in." (While that sounds like a negative, it's not. Great leaders don't have to know every step and aspect of a direct report's job in order to manage that person's goals, targets, and deliverables.)

Now imagine you're asked how one of your coders structured a certain function. You could go the noisy ignorance route and whip out terms like seeds and shards and dynamic dumps and eliminating spaghetti code. 

Or you could just say, "I'm not sure. Let me find out."

That's the opposite of noisy ignorance.

Do that -- even though it might not feel comfortable -- and several things happen.

  1. You get to learn a little more about what your employee does.
  2. You get to implicitly compliment your employee for possessing knowledge that you don't.
  3. You get to actually answer the question you were asked.

And, most important, you help create an environment where a temporary lack of knowledge is seen as a positive since it creates an opportunity to learn. To better understand. To share useful information. 

An environment where being smart -- by researching, or investigating, or asking questions -- is more important than seeming smart.

The next time you're tempted to whip out a buzzword? See that as a sign that you should instead say, "I don't know. Let me find out."

Because while admitting some degree of ignorance might make you feel vulnerable, it's actually the smartest -- and best -- thing you can do.

For you, and for the people you lead.