3 Times When Saying, “I Don’t Know” Is A Terrible Leadership Response

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When a leader responds to a question by saying, “I don’t know”, it can reveal transparency and authenticity. But sometimes, “I don’t know” is the very worst thing you could say as a leader.

Increasingly, leaders are being coached that “It’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’”. This is a largely positive trend and, in the right context, can indeed point to a leader’s sense of security and desire to be transparent.

Today I Googled the phrase, “It’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know’” and the search result returned 3,120,000,000 hits, with the top articles carrying the titles,

  • The Power of Saying ‘I Don’t Know’

  • It’s Okay to Say “I Don’t Know”

  • 4 Reasons Why It’s Okay to Say “I Don’t Know”

  • Learn To Say “I Don’t Know”

Truly, a leader can often engender trust by acknowledging that they simply do not know the answer to a question.

But leaders must also be careful not to misuse this phrase. 

Because there are at least three times when saying, “I don’t know” can be a terrible leadership response.

1. When someone asks, “How is the culture of the team?”

If someone were to ask about the health or welfare of the team, a leader dare not be so removed as to have to answer, “I don’t know”.

One of the first and primary jobs of the leader is to nurture a healthy team culture, and this begins by remaining vigilantly apprised as to the team’s emotional state.

2. When someone asks, “Where are we going?”

A directionless leader will not be followed for very long.

How the focus and direction of the team is established can certainly be a collaborative process, but ultimately the leader must be able to point definitively to the destination on the horizon. To say, “I don’t know where we’re going” is not an acceptable response.

3. When someone asks, “What’s our strategy?”

Once the goals are established, the next reasonable question becomes, “How are we going to accomplish this?”

At this point, the leader best not say, “I don’t know.” It’s fair game to say that the team will work together to devise a plan, but a shoulder-shrugging “I don’t know” won’t cut it.

When it comes to acknowledging that you don’t yet have sufficient information, “I don’t know” can be a reasonable, even a strong, answer.

Just remember, sometimes the leader must say with confidence, “I DO know…”

the author

Scott Cochrane

Lifelong learner, practitioner and coach of leadership, across more than 50 countries. Follower of Jesus, husband of Nora, grateful parent and grandparent.

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