What’s the secret to success in business? I don’t know.
“Who’s” on first, “What’s” on second, and…”I Don’t Know” is the key to success.
Confused? Keep reading.
“I don’t know” are three of the most powerful words that you won’t find in any business books or MBA programs. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, investor, doctor, teacher, or politician, no matter what your vocation is, it goes against everything we’re taught about leadership to straight up admit you’re not sure of something.
But sometimes “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” is the honest truth. And although proclaiming ignorance may be a social risk, it’s much less risky than leading a company in the wrong direction.
There are topics and dilemmas that all of us are presented with that either go beyond our own scope of knowledge and experience or that are simply too subjective to be certain of. Without the courage and freedom to say “I don’t know” when you aren’t sure of what’s best to do, business decisions become just speculations—detached from reality. This can doom a project, strategy, or an entire company to failure.
In most companies, saying “I don’t know” in a meeting is rare. Whether it’s because of our own insecurities or confident arrogance, it can take some courage to say the words. Whether in front of a colleague or a customer, making it clear that you are unsure or need to do more research before answering brings with it the risk that you will be perceived as weak or uninformed.
But in my role as a CEO at our tech consulting company, I have learned that normalizing these three simple words has been critical to everything we do.
“Do you think we can make the deadline?”
”I hope we can, but I’m honestly not sure.”
“Should we stay focused on our core competencies or pivot to help us grow?”
“I don’t know. I need to think about this before I can share an opinion.”
“Do think the economy will be ok this year?”
“I’m not an economist so I’m not totally sure.”
I value these types of interactions because they are real.
So, how do you break through the fear and make “I don’t know” an accepted and even encouraged part of your company’s culture?
It starts at the top. Company leaders must be humble and acknowledge out loud that there are certain topics that fall outside their expertise. Setting the tone from the top takes the shame away for everyone else.
But it’s not that easy because most teams look to those in leadership roles for answers and certainty. The modified version for those is leadership roles should be “I don’t know but I will find out.” The idea is to make sure everyone knows it’s OK not to have an opinion but that they won’t be left hanging with no answer at all. It’s the proactive version of being real.
From there, it’s a matter of establishing a culture where everyone feels respected and secure. We all have some degree of imposter syndrome (a fear that you’re not as knowledgeable as you appear, and one day the rest of the world will find out.) So this is also easier said than done. But at its core, setting a culture of security and respect comes down to having each other’s back when someone makes a mistake, and treating people as equals no matter where they stand on the corporate ladder.
It’s hard to admit after all these years in business that I’m not sure what the secret sauce of success is. But I do know that saying “I don’t know” is an important ingredient.
JJ Rosen is the founder of Atiba. A Nashville custom software development and IT support company. Visit www.atiba.com or www.atibanetworkservices.com for more info.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Answer ‘I don’t know’ when you don’t know. It’s good business