The Art of Admitting that You Don’t Know Something

know it all3I’ve always thought that IT people are among the brightest people in companies. They often tend, however, to have one habit that diminishes their reputations. Have you ever noticed that when you ask an IT person if he can do a job for you he is always generally always willing to help and says, “Of course!.

I’ve learned that when you ask an IT person to do something and he says yes, that you should follow up with three questions.

Have you ever done this before?

Do we have enough money for pay for it?

Can we get it done in our lifetime?

You see, one of the downsides of being pretty bright guys is that when they are confronted with a problem they immediately think about how they are going to solve it. Being pretty bright guys, they are sure they can fix whatever is wrong.

I learned this the hard way a number of year ago when I hired a computer guy to fix some software I was using. He did indeed fix it and presented me with a whopping big bill itemizing the number of hours he spent on the task. When I questioned why it took him so long, he said he had never worked on that software before and had to learn about it in order to fix the problem. Kudos to him for figuring it out, but not on my dime. Needless to say we did not part on the best of terms.

I imagine that if, up front, he admitted that he was not familiar with the software then I would not hire him to do the job. He would have been right. What he failed to realize was that if he had been honest I would quite likely have used him for other projects.

This has led me to observe similar types of behaviour from all sorts of people in business, not just IT folks – although this is where my awareness of this habit was raised. Why can’t people just admit that they don’t know something especially when subsequent results clearly illustrate that they had no idea about what to do.

As part of filling my mission in life here are some “rules” that hopefully will keep you from falling into the “I know everything even if I don’t know everything” syndrome.

People who know everything don’t know much. Industry Tap News says: “Buckminster Fuller created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve”; he noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today things are not as simple as different types of knowledge have different rates of growth. For example, nanotechnology knowledge is doubling every two years and clinical knowledge every 18 months. But on average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. According to IBM, the build out of the “internet of things” will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours”. I bet you didn’t know that!

People who admit that they don’t know something are perceived as more honest and authentic than those who fake it. We are much more likely to believe someone who admits an error than one who only brags about accomplishments.

know it all2People who admit that they don’t know something are far more likely to learn something than those who pretend to know. As a university instructor, I’ve always been surprised at the deafening silence that follows my standard inquiry: “Ok, any questions? Anything I said that was confusing or didn’t make sense?” This is almost always met with a resounding silence. I then have to resort to threats – “if no one has any questions then I will be forced to ask you questions about what I just talked about”. That generally works and the questions begin to be posed.

People who admit that they don’t know something generally get some assistance. This is a great way to prevent you from having to do an entire project all on your own and spend hours looking up things on the internet.

People who can admit to not knowing something are generally seen as having a healthy ego. People with weak ego strength are reluctant to admit that there is something they don’t know for fear that they will be judged harshly. People with strong egos know that their worth is not dependent upon their knowing – or not knowing everything.

You reduce the chances of looking foolish when your ignorance is finally revealed. If you can’t admit that you don’t know something, sooner or later you will be found out.

So the next time you are tempted to claim expertise on a topic abut which you know very little – relax, take a deep breath, save my time, perhaps my money, and tell me that you don’t know. Then we will both be happy!

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