“I Don’t Know” Are Wise and Wonderful Words

One of my heroes, Susan Cain, the author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” and the co-founder of the Quiet Revolution recently shared this piece of wisdom from Cass Sunstein’s new book on overcoming groupthink, “Wiser”:

When people lack confidence, they tend to be tentative and, therefore, moderate, knowing that their own views may be wrong. The great American judge Learned Hand once said that ‘the spirit of liberty is that spirit which is not too sure that it is right.’ Tentative people respect the spirit of liberty. But as people gain confidence, they usually become more extreme in their beliefs. The reason is that a significant moderating factor — their own uncertainty about whether they are right — has been eliminated.

Yet, expressing this spirit which “is not too sure that is is right,” which acknowledges that problems are complex and things are connected and messy in ways that take time and depth to unravel is often looked down upon, especially in domains such as business or politics.

Though questions and doubts are the raw ingredients from which insights, solutions, and ultimately, value emerges, “I don’t know” are still difficult words for people to speak in business.

As Stephen Levitt, coauthor of “Think Like a Freak,” a manual which teaches the  approach Levitt and Stephen Dubner used to write the bestselling Freaknomics says:

It’s absolutely been my experience in business that nobody ever wants to admit that they don’t know the answer to questions, even when it’s patently obvious that they can’t know the answers because of the (limited) information they have. Businesspeople, especially in front of their bosses, have an almost unlimited ability to sit back and mint answers they don’t know. To me, that’s exactly the opposite of the “Freakonomics” approach.

Although projecting certainty can provide the air of knowing the answers, it does not ensure that that those answers are correct. But the incentives of the business world, and other domains such as politics, seem to call for this all-knowing stance, instead of one of curiosity, of uncertainty, of a desire for true knowledge. Here’s how Dubner explains it:

I understand the way the incentives work. I understand that reputation works. Nobody wants to be the ignoramus or the dummy. If I’m a politician and someone says, “Governor Blah Blah, Senator Blah Blah, we just had this terrible mass shooting at a school. If you could do anything — if all options were available to you — what would you do to prevent that in the future?”

The way the world works is, [the politician will respond], “I’m gonna tell you. I’m gonna do these three things, and that’s what will do it.” [But if you follow up with the question:] “Do you have any evidence? Is there any empirical reason to think that that actually would work?” Often, I hate to say it, [the answer is] no. You see that in certain realms — politics and in business where the incentives are different. There’s a big incentive to get it right in business, but there’s also a lot of, for lack of a more sophisticated term, peer pressure to be the gal or guy who knows, who has the plan.

And while the peer pressure and personal value is a force in the present, the outcome of the solution proposed so emphatically can only be seen in the distant future, by when the decision makers have likely moved on to different things, unlikely to be judged on their “plan.”

Faced with this reality, only the few who genuinely care about finding the right answer, about helping the cause, not just helping their own careers, risk saying “I don’t know.”

Yet, over the long-term, businesses do want decision makers to take decisions that are in the long-term interest of the business, not just themselves. So, it might make sense for companies to build an atmosphere which values thoughtful enquiry, not bravado, which respects healthy confidence and judgment, but questions a surety which comes too easy and slick.

Of course, most routine questions don’t require a deep investigation. But every once in a while questions and puzzles come up which are better answered by saying “I don’t know,” and then trying to find the answers.

How do you feel about saying or hearing “I don’t know?” What strategies can make it easier to say or hear these words?

Magic Words

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5 thoughts on ““I Don’t Know” Are Wise and Wonderful Words

  1. When you think about this idea of I Don’t Know being wise, it seems so logical and obvious. I mean, of course, there are times when we don’t know the right answer or any answer. Sure, that happens. To everyone, right? Yet, it is just so amazing and preposterous that people would just overlook that. I think this sort of thinking should be okay in other aspects of our lives as well. So for example, take a typical corporate world interview question of “where do you see yourself in the next five years”. Well, I don’t know! Five years is a long time and so many things can change influencing my personal and professional life, that I frankly don’t know. I can tell you where I don’t want to be 😉

    On a lighter note, you know how Calvin of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip keeps asking his dad questions. And his dad absolutely doesn’t know the answer to but makes up some most ridiculous responses ever. Guess, who needs to say ” I Don’t Know” and pick up a parenting tip 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it should be ok to express healthy doubt, instead of seeing doubt or uncertainty as indecisiveness or
      lack of clarity. Loved your point about how it should be okay to say “I don’t know” in other areas too! Five years is indeed a long time for us to grow into the any/many possibilities we have inside us 🙂
      P.S. Calvin would be SO frustrated if he had to face “I don’t know” from his dad a lot!


      1. And he would have a pretty intellectual discussion with Hobbes over that.
        Calvin to Hobbes: I think my dad does not know anything..It is scary at times. But more overwhelming is the fact that now the burden of an intelligent man in the house lies completely on me 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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