Why It's Totally OK to Tell Your Manager "I Don't Know"
When your manager asks you a question, you should know the answer, right? If you don't know, you might look bad. So you fake it, at least until you can find the answer later and act like you knew all along.
Okay, that was a trick question (maybe you knew that based on the title—clever you). I'm here to break some news to you. The "fake it" approach is wrong—really wrong. Believe me. I've suffered from colleagues who wouldn't admit when they didn't know something. And when the top manager was in the room, my co-workers would promise the world. But as soon as we were alone, I'd ask, “Okay, so how are we going to do this?" only to find out they had no clue.
Here's a better way to save the situation when your manager asks you a question you're not quite sure of.
Admit What You Don't Know
“When you admit what you don't know, people will trust what you do know," Jamie Hu, Product Owner at Booking.com, points out. And boosting your credibility isn't the only benefit. Saying “I don't know" demonstrates honesty and shows that you're open to learning from others. It then invites those who really do know the answer to pitch in, improving collaboration and teamwork.
And when you're honest at work, your office culture may benefit as a result. Often all it takes is one person to be more vulnerable for others to feel they can be, too.
Teams with open communication and positive collaboration get work done by being honest with each other. Melanie Wessels, who oversees agility boot camps for Booking.com's talent development team, gets this. It's why she focuses whole workshops on helping teammates better understand each other.
Melanie notes that one of the most important parts of the boot camp for new teams is helping them build trust. They share both the high and low points in their lives with one another to build mutual understanding.
“Going to work with a mask on doesn't help you or the people working with you," says Melanie. “When we better understand why people may have certain communication gaps or other issues, our collaboration improves."
Jamie agrees. Her team was fairly new, and before they attended boot camp together some people hesitated to share their thoughts.
“Sharing more about ourselves got us more comfortable with each other," she explains. “Now we can better relate when working on a project."
If each person pretends they know everything, then no one will learn anything new. This is dangerous, and it's why many hiring managers seek out employees with humble characteristics.
“Being humble allows you to see the talent in your colleagues," Jamie says. “It makes you want to work together and hungry to learn more." She notes that even her higher-ups care about what she thinks and take time to explore others' ideas before making decisions by default.
Plus, a humble culture comes with what Melanie refers to as “psychological safety"—an environment in which people aren't afraid of being wrong or making mistakes, and are free to innovate by taking chances that result in great things.
If you find yourself in a situation where you're a tad uncomfortable, whether it's a danger of not meeting your deadline or lacking some of the requisite skills, invite a colleague to help and give them credit where it's due.
You can also close out projects by not only presenting the success results, but sharing any lessons learned. You never know, those lessons may also help your colleagues; plus, you'll display that you don't see yourself as knowing it all but are always willing to learn.
Frame Your Mistakes as Learning Opportunities
When you don't know an answer, admit it and find an opportunity to learn. If you make a mistake, remember it's not the end of the world, Jamie says.
“People don't mind if you make mistakes as long as you learn fast," she says of her office culture. “We reflect on our failures and document what we can do differently next time."
Let's say you're leading a project and expected that you'd only need one developer to meet your deadlines, but are quickly falling behind schedule. Don't wait too long to admit your mistake. Own up to it right away and present a potential solution (or even ask for help solving the problem) to quickly remedy the situation. Try approaching your manager to explain where you were wrong, what you think the solution could be, and how you'll avoid making this mistake in the future.
Both Jamie and Melanie confirm that when you take this approach, people won't blame you for doing something wrong. Instead they'll see your mistake as a learning experience.
Finally, when we're honest about our mistakes, we hold ourselves accountable. And when we feel and act truly accountable, we're empowered. In Jamie's last role at a different company, she felt a bit held back—something she didn't realize until she took her current role at Booking.com.
“The culture was a shock in a way—there was more trust and autonomy," she remembers. “Once I realized I didn't need approval for each step of my process, and my manager told me I was free to make my own decisions, things got really exciting. I thought, 'If this were my company, what would I do?'"
So stop being afraid. Get excited instead. Be honest with where you are, where you want to go and how you can improve to get there. “I don't know" really can be the best answer to your manager's next question.