The power of ‘I don’t know’

Confidence isn’t necessarily a leadership trait, points out David Burkus, author, speaker and associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article which appeared on the Pscyhology Today website.

Somewhere along the line, we mistook confidence for competence. We decided that decisiveness was the mark of a good leader – and then we started promoting the most confident deciders…even if their decisions were terrible. The logical end to all of this is that, now, we struggle with leaders in all domains confidently asserting their thoughts on a certain issue, or confidently presenting the solution to a problem they’ve just learned about.

We hear confidence in their voice, and it can become all too easy to assume it means they’re presenting a well-thought-out plan of action.

The truth is, there is little correlation between confidence and competence; in fact, it can often go the opposite way. More than 20 years ago, psychologist David Dunning and Justin Kruger demonstrated that, when people knew very little about a topic or situation, they were very likely to over-assess their knowledge and ability. The less they knew, the more confident they were in their expertise.

Ignorance wasn’t bliss; it was confidence.

Confident ignorance can lead to disaster
For leaders, a powerful antidote is simply acknowledging that you don’t know. When you’re asked a question you don’t know the answer to, just say ‘I don’t know’ and then commit to finding the answer. When asked for your advice on a situation, you can just say ‘I don’t know, let me think more and get back to you’. Beyond giving you the opportunity to find the right answer, ‘I don’t know’ communicates your own intellectual curiosity and your intellectual humility.

Yes – you have to be committed to finding out. And yes – you should probably share with people when you do know – but asserting, with a pig-headed certainty, that you already know is far more damaging than admitting that you don’t know, and then taking the time for you and your team to find out.

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‘I don’t know’ even has a spill-over effect of sending a message to your team that it’s okay not to have all the answers. It creates a form of psychological safety that people around you don’t have to hide their doubts – and, when people share their doubts and questions, we all benefit by examining the topic or issue more to resolve those questions.

If you want a culture where finding the right answer is valued more than faking the right answer – if you want a culture of actual competence and not just confident ignorance – then get used to saying ‘I don’t know’ more often, and encouraging those around you to do the same.

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