The Power of I Don’t Know

Contribution | Written by Stephen Wood

When I was a fairly new attorney working for a large Southeastern law firm, I received some sage advice from a mentor that I carry with me today.

I was helping her prepare witnesses for an upcoming trial. Her advice: “Make sure your witnesses know that ‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly acceptable answer.” Speculating, or guessing, when one truly doesn’t know the answer is a recipe for disaster and can seriously tarnish one’s credibility.

How does this apply today? We suspect many of your employees may be asking you—the department, division or company leader—what will happen to the company (and by natural inference, their jobs).

It is highly unlikely you know the answer given the state of flux we all find ourselves in. So much depends on things over which we have little or no control: how long COVID-19 will linger; how well the health system manages the increasing number of cases; how local, state and the federal government responds; and what consumers elect to do, or not do, when faced with personal uncertainty.

So how best respond? Be honest. Admit you don’t know. But then offer reassurance that you and your fellow leaders are doing everything in your power to ensure the company—and your employees—will weather the storm and come out the other end ready to tackle new challenges and seize new opportunities. This is the answer that your employees most likely already expected, and being truthful (that you don’t know), will earn their respect—even if they don’t like the answer.

But don’t necessarily stop there. Use the conversation to ask them what ideas or suggestions they might have. There may be something you haven’t thought of or considered. If nothing else, it shows you value their input and see them as part of the solution.

Lastly, don’t hide. Avoiding situations where you may be asked a question to which you have no answer is a natural human inclination. But these are the times leaders need to be visible, open and honest. “I don’t know” is okay.

Stephen Wood is EVP, Managing Director of Centerstone Executive Search & Consulting in Charleston, South Carolina. Before joining Centerstone, Stephen spent more than 20 years in chief human resources roles for Fortune 500 firms in hospitality, healthcare and telecom, directing the recruitment of C-Suite officers in multiple disciplines. Stephen received his undergraduate degree from the College of William & Mary and his Juris Doctorate from the University of Virginia. Contact Stephen at [email protected] or 843-284-8892.