Dr. David Lose: The Power of "I Don't Know"

We have, I think, a cultural bias against admitting what we don't know. It's as if by admitting our ignorance in a particular subject we undermine our credibility on any subject. I find this particularly true of leaders - whether in a church, corporation, faculty, or family. Perhaps that's because when we are placed into positions of leadership we feel that it's our responsibility to live up to this trust. Or maybe it's simply because if we are leading in our organization it's precisely because we've proven ourselves competent, and so we feel that any demonstration of ignorance calls into question our competence and, therefore, our fitness for leadership.

But that attitude can be incredibly debilitating. So in this and two more posts that will go up in the coming week, I want to investigate what we lose when we can't bring ourselves to say "I don't know" are what we gain when we can.

Pt. 1: Bad Information and Missed Opportunities

When you can't admit what you don't know you're quite likely to limit your ability to lead effectively. I've known competent pastors, for instance, who were good at everything except finance, and rather than reach out to the congregation for help, they kept their area of ignorance - and the financial books - secret, only to cripple the growth of their church and sometimes stumble into unintentional malfeasance. Similarly, when I was a young parent I was told by a well-meaning elder that I should never say "I don't know" to my children lest they would lose respect for my parental authority. The same dynamics can play out in business environments as well. As Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (co-authors ofFreakonomicsrecently discussed in a podcast, the inability to admit ignorance is one of the most pervasive and devastating cultural attributes in most corporate workplaces.

Why is it so debilitating? First, if someone asks a question and you can't say "I don't know," you are likely to speak out of your ignorance and give unhelpful and inaccurate information. Second, and just as importantly, if you can't admit ignorance then you can't learn. Too afraid to admit a deficit, you spend your energy covering for that deficit instead of eliminating it by learning.

So can we find ways not only to admit our areas of ignorance but also create environments that make it easier for people to do so? Can we, that is, see lack of knowledge, information, and skill not as character deficits but as opportunities for growth and learning? It will help by sharing examples of situations when we admitted our ignorance and not only survived but actually grew and flourished. So go ahead, share a story of when you realized you didn't know enough about something and rather than run and hide you admitted it and thereby had an opportunity to learn and grow.

It will get easier to do this, I think, if we can reconsider our assumptions about the relationship between intelligence and knowledge, and I'll move to that my next post.

[Taken with permission from David's blog, "...In the Meantime"]