In an intense workplace where everyone is "faking it 'til they make it," there's pressure to always have the right answer to any given question. I get it. I too love being right and having the most helpful advice for people. Maybe it's a carryover from school? Maybe it's a firstborn thing? Maybe it's simply being a hardcore people pleaser at heart?
Whatever my reason and whatever yours, our quest to correctly answer every question can actually hold us back at work. You really don't know everything. It's hard to hear. I know, and I'm sorry, but it's true.
You have to say, "I don't know" regularly, and here's why.
Responding to questions under pressure or out of habit typically doesn't result in the most well thought-out answers. In the worst-case scenarios, a confidently-delivered wrong answer is dangerous and expensive. Most of the time, though, it's just a colossal waste of time. I love not wasting time even more than I love having the right answer. Most other people feel the same.
By always having an answer, you inadvertently undermine your credibility. This is because everyone else knows you don't know everything, and you start to look silly by always giving a confident answer, even when it's obviously wrong. Your team would much rather you admit to not knowing something than fake it just for the sake of looking competent.
"But what if I actually do always know the answer to all the questions I'm asked at work?", you ask. If you really feel that you have the answer for every issue that comes up at work, then I'd argue you've stayed too long in your current role. If you've literally mastered every angle of the job, it's time to go. You're no longer challenging yourself. Move vertically to gain greater perspective and visibility, or move laterally to a different industry to up the challenge that way. Either strategy works to break out of stagnation.
Instead of always providing an answer, I propose a simple strategy: Say "I don't know" when you don't know. Then, follow that statement with, "... and I'm going to find out" or "...I'll get back to you" or "...what do you think?"
Now, this isn't an excuse not to prepare like crazy for questions you anticipate getting during your next big presentation. I recently saw an episode of Shark Tank where the contestant was turned down by Mark Cuban. During the question and answer portion after her pitch, she left no room for reflection or opening to take Cuban's advice. She came off as arrogant because she had an answer for everything. He clearly wasn't interested in working with someone like her--and, based on what I saw, I wouldn't be either.
The alternative is to think about your knowledge and ability to answer questions in three tiers: basic, stretch, and growth.
You absolutely should have the basic, foundational knowledge needed to fulfill the role you're paid to play. You should stretch yourself and seek answers to all the questions up and around the edges of your expertise, the questions that you're able to anticipate but don't yet know the answer to. And, you should intentionally put yourself in situations that will challenge your thinking by exposing you to questions you couldn't possibly expect. These are the most fascinating, growth-sparking questions you'll get. They're the most memorable. They stick with you and have the potential to change the course of your most important work.
Seeking out the questions that will push you at work will not only make you grow as a person, it will also show your team that you're humble and willing to learn, two underrated but excellent qualities in a leader. Remember that saying "I don't know" every once in a while doesn't make you look incompetent--it will actually increase your team's trust that you're always giving the truest answer you can.
If you liked this column, subscribe to email alerts in the Work Life Lab and you'll never miss a post.