Why we should say, “I don’t know” more often | Quint Studer


We are often hesitant to admit we don’t know something. Rather than saying, “I don’t know,” we often give an answer thinking the boss will think less of us if we don’t know.  That fear forces answers that sometimes need more thought or research. The reality is that saying, “I don’t know,” or I need a little time to think it through will make your boss and colleagues respect you even more.

The truth is, we can’t have all the answers. After all, we are just human beings, the world is a very big place, and most business problems are very complex and nuanced. No matter how knowledgeable we are, we simply cannot know everything. And we shouldn’t pretend to. Plus, in many cases, people aren’t expecting an immediate answer. This is pressure we put on ourselves.

I speak from experience. I learned the power of “I don’t know” from an early mentor. At the time, I was scared to look stupid. When I was asked a question, I made stuff up or talked for a long time about nothing. Then one day I asked my mentor: “What do you do when your boss asks you a question and you don’t know the answer?” His response was, “Say, ‘I don’t know.’” He then followed this up by saying that I could offer to find out. 

This was an “aha” moment for me. I decided to try it out. Soon after, I was at a meeting with about six people, and the boss called on me. I did not know the answer. I said, “I don’t know,” and he said okay and moved on. It was no big deal. I remember thinking, I could have been doing that all these years! It was so much easier. I also found my coworkers liked me better. The only person I had fooled by making up stuff was me.

Over the years, I came to realize that pretending to know it all is in direct opposition to the top two qualities needed to be successful: being self-aware and coachable. Organizations that encourage and nurture these two qualities tend to be strong, innovative, and profitable. They are especially vital in a business environment that requires us to adapt quickly and relentlessly. 

The most successful people these days not only need to be great at what they do, they need to be great learners. They need to know what they don’t know and be willing to work hard to learn it.

Quint Studer is the founder of the Studer Community Institute and a successful business leader, speaker and author. He is also the entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of West Florida, executive-in-residence at George Washington University and a lecturer at Cornell University. His new book, “The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive,” is out now.