The fear of saying “I don’t know” started long ago. In the past, a person’s ability to gain employment was based on their depth of knowledge and aptitude at a particular trade. Workers received intense training and usually performed an apprenticeship before they were considered a “professional” and respected as such. Saying the words, “I don’t know” was an indictment of incompetence.
But the work landscape has changed.
In today’s workforce, having in depth expertise is less valuable and has become a distant second behind potential. A person’s potential and capacity to learn is more important and far more valuable than encyclopedic knowledge on a particular topic.
Your credibility lies in your ability to track down, research and synthesize information and provide that information in the proper format to the proper people.
The Beauty of Not Knowing
The birth of the internet created a huge shift in the information paradigm. Now, information, data, and knowledge are literally at your fingertips. The impact of the information sharing on every level and subject, which is readily available 24/7, is a remarkably wonderful double-edged sword.
Things that were privy only to certain people and shared within closed circles is now accessible to all. If you want to know —you can.
The amount and magnitude of information available is overwhelming and incomprehensible. It has become almost impossible to be a true “subject matter expert.” The paradox is that both everyone and no one is an expert.
The approach allows your boss and colleagues to know that you understand the importance of the issue. It also lets them know that you are reliable and are going to work to find the best possible.
The shift in information sharing has also impacted workplace norms. Where it used to be frowned upon and taboo to use the words, “I don’t know” in a professional environment, it now has become acceptable and expected. Today people are hired based on their ability to process information not to memorize it — which is a far more remarkable and better use of the brain.
Our brains have gone from being storage containers to multifaceted microprocessors. Your ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, apply and create new information is your most attractive attribute — not your current knowledge base.
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Embracing “I Don’t Know”
The quicker you embrace the fact that you don’t know everything about anything, the better off you and those around you will be. You will unburden yourself of undue stress at work and you shift your brain into a continuous state of learning.
The value in embracing and saying “I don’t know” lets you off the hook and helps reduce all of the misinformation pervading our information system. The truth is, your boss doesn’t care whether or not you can produce information on the spot, he or she is more interested in whether or not you can find the correct information quickly and apply it properly.
Once you’ve identified a few possible solutions using a systematic approach, talk through your research findings and thought process with someone else.
Chasing “I don’t know,” with “but I’ll get back to you shortly,” is the recipe for continued growth, humility, and opportunities.
How to Know What You Don’t Know
Now that you understand now knowing everything is totally okay in the workplace, it’s time to understand how to complete the process and close the loop. Not knowing is acceptable, but failure to rectify the knowledge gap is not.
Find out What’s Missing
The first step (after admitting your ignorance on the subject) is to ensure that you understand exactly what information you are being asked to provide.
Nothing is worse than misunderstanding what it is the other person needs and chasing your tail down rabbit holes. Make sure what information you are being asked to gather and synthesize and then find out how it should be presented. This is a simple yet critical first step.
Always work from authoritative and well-known research. Use information from industry experts.
Think Through What You’ve Got
Now comes the part of the process where you gather the necessary information.
Ensure your sources are reliable. Read the information and then put it into two categories: What you know and understand and What you need to know or need to clarify further.
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Make a list of concepts that you need to research more in depth. Clearly defining and assessing the information is the first step in critical thinking.
Fill in Knowledge Gaps
Focus your energy on researching the things you don’t know or can’t articulate clearly.
Always work from authoritative and well-known research. Use information from industry experts. Start from an original source such as a research study and then work your way out.
Read the abstract first, then find easier to read blogs, articles, books, and videos that are based on this founding research. This will help you understand if the secondary sources are accurate. This will not only assist you in understanding the information but reading “lighter” materials also assists you with finding the vocabulary and other tools (charts, graphs, info graphics, videos, podcasts, etc.) that can help you accurately explain the concepts.
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Once you have and understand the information, create a plan of action.
Your course of action depends on the initial request. If you are being asked to present the information for knowledge only purposes, plan your presentation method accordingly.
Nothing is worse than misunderstanding what it is the other person needs and chasing your tail down rabbit holes.
If you are being asked to provide a solution or recommend a course of action based on your findings, be sure to use a structured research approach such as the “Five Why’s”. Using a structured research method will assist you in making a logical and researched based decision that has passed multiple tests. It also will assist in catching and mitigating flawed logic which is inherent to any decision making process.
Discuss and Brainstorm
Once you’ve identified a few possible solutions using a systematic approach, talk through your research findings and thought process with someone else — your boss or trusted co-worker. Together you can brainstorm potential solutions or assist each other in finding creative and innovative solutions to the issue.
No matter how thorough you are during your research process, you should always seek the input of others. The only perspective you have — regardless of how much research you do is–yours. Seeking the counsel of others broadens your perspective.
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Making “I Don’t Know” Palatable
If saying the words “I don’t know” makes you cringe, here are a few alternatives:
- “I don’t have a concrete solution at the moment. Let me gather some information and I’ll get back to you.”
- “I don’t want to make a hasty decision that we may regret, please give me a few hours to look into this.”
- “This particular situation may warrant a different course of action, I’ll do some research and get back to you by the end of the day.”
These are just examples— modify to fit your communication style and situation. The thing to note is that in each example you make it clear that:
- You don’t have an answer.
- You are going to research the topic/possible solutions.
- You provide an appropriate time frame in which you will provide the information/suggested solution.
The birth of the internet created a huge shift in the information paradigm. Now, information, data, and knowledge are literally at your fingertips.
This approach allows your boss and colleagues to know that you understand the importance of the issue. It also lets them know that you are reliable and are going to work to find the best possible solution in lieu of handing them a half-baked, under-thought remedy which may do more harm than good. In the end, you actually walk away looking more competent, caring and committed than had you been able to provide an answer immediately.
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Not Knowing Doesn’t Make You Impotent
“I don’t know” is a legitimate, acceptable and more importantly— responsible response when you don’t know an answer.
Your credibility doesn’t lie in your ability to provide encyclopedic knowledge on demand. We have the internet for that.
Instead, your credibility lies in your ability to track down, research and synthesize information and provide that information in the proper format to the proper people.
The article was originally published on lifehack.org