Mistakes New Leaders Make: Thinking “I Don’t Know” Isn’t an Acceptable Answer

Justin Clark, MBA

 This twelve week series is a collection of my personal experiences as a new leader over the past three years. These are not only mistakes that I have made, but that I continue to make at times. I hope that by sharing my experiences, readers will be able to navigate their role as a leader more skillfully. 

What are the barriers to doing this?

As leaders, people will naturally look to us for answers. They will ask many reasonable questions. We want to be able to respond to them clearly and comprehensively. We work hard to be engaged with what is going on. Shouldn’t we be able to answer these questions?  It is the desire to satisfy their question that can compel us to want to provide a clear, yes or no answer. After all, saying “I don’t know” might give the impression that we aren’t as in tune with what is going as we had thought.

What is the case for doing it anyway?

If our answer is driven by the desire to please the person asking the question or to maintain some perception we think they have of us, we aren’t properly focused. We should be focused on doing the right thing. In this case, when we don’t know the answer to an inquiry, we need to be honest about it. Responding affirmatively or negatively without certainty will usually result in a bigger problem than we would have had if we had just said that we didn’t know. Ultimately, not saying “I don’t know” will undermine trust between coworkers.

How can you do it?

1.  Know what you don’t know.

2.  Say “I don’t know” when necessary.

3.  Find the answer once the question has been asked.

4.  Close the loop as soon as possible.

How does a willingness to say “I don’t know” free you to lead more effectively?

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