“I Don’t Know” is Not a Four-Letter Word

“I Don’t Know” is Not a Four-Letter Word

There comes a time in every PM’s life (perhaps even daily) when someone will ask you a question that you honestly do not know the answer to. This question might be about the product, the process, the customer, future plans, or something else business related. And, all too often, we either wind up dodging the question, redirecting the conversation, or even just making something up on the fly that sounds reasonable and is probably right, but that we’re not really certain of.

The truth is, however, that it’s entirely okay to say, “I don’t know.”

It’s often the case that even highly-qualified PMs may suffer from “pretender syndrome” due to the constant pressure and questioning of what we do, how we do it, and the decisions that we make.  Other times, we feel the need to never show weakness, lest someone take that weakness and use it against us in the future.  And even if neither of those situations are the case, there are times when we simply feel like the business expects us to know everything, when in reality nobody in the business knows “everything”.

That’s why it’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” every so often.  It humanizes us in the eyes of the people that we’re talking with and working with.  It lessens the feeling that we are know-it-alls, or that we feel the need to assert some control or authority through knowledge.  But most of all, it should be said because it may be the truth.

When we aren’t willing to say, “I don’t know,” we’re pushing ourselves into a corner where we wind up being manipulative (at best) or even outright lying (at worst).  And in both situations, it’s often the case that we then have to turn around at some later date and “clarify” what we had said before (aka: correct the lie).  When this happens, not only do we show some “weakness”, but we’re cashing in a good portion of the trust and social capital that others have invested in us — for no good reason at all.  If you’re constantly “clarifying” things that you said earlier, because you didn’t know something at the time, then why should anyone believe what you say in the first place?

If you’re constantly “clarifying” things that you said earlier, because you didn’t know something at the time, then why should anyone believe what you say in the first place?

Now, this doesn’t mean that you just say “I don’t know” and leave it at that; just as there is an art to saying “No”, there’s an art to saying, “I don’t know.”  First and foremost, it should always be followed by, “…but let me find out,” or some similar action statement.  If you don’t know something, maybe you should, and when you do, you can clearly make a true statement, without following up.  Very few people in the world will criticize someone for being willing to find something out that they don’t know — and those people are entirely unreasonable to begin with, and most others in the company probably know this.  Second, make sure that you do follow up, once you’ve done your research — even explaining why you didn’t know the answer to the question.  Again, the goal here is to humanize the conversation, and a little humility and explanation will go a lot longer toward building trust, respect, and social capital with someone than will making something up that you have to “clarify” at a later date.

If you don’t know something, then you don’t know it.  It’s not the end of the world, or of your career.  Knowing our limits and being clear and direct will almost always turn out better for you in the end than trying to unduly manipulate the situation for your own purposes.

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