It’s OK to not know.


“I don’t know” is actually a valid answer to a problem.

“Let me think about that” is not an excuse to waste time.

“I think I should discuss this problem with my peers” doesn’t present you as incapable.

No need to be infallible

We all want to be seen in the best light. We don’t want to be seen to make mistakes. We want to be appreciated for what do. We want acknowledgement for all we put in and what we can achieve. We definitely don’t want to be seen as the weak link. We want to give an impression that we are in control and that we are ready for whatever challenge may come our way. We want people to know that they can trust us; that they can rely on us. We want to inspire confidence that we know what we are doing.

To achieve this we do not need to be infallible.  We need to be honest; with other people and ourselves.

It can be too easy to try and have an answer for everything.  If you are presented with a problem you want to solve it quickly. Most problems that come up in my world as a web project manager do not have instant answers and I’m typically very suspicious of off the cuff solutions.  When I pose a problem to my team I would expect an answer that is something along the lines of; “Give me some time to consider that” or “I’m not sure, there could be several solutions, let me do some thinking and research”.

Similarly, in an environment of peers, if you don’t know how something works, ask your team mates. Share the knowledge around. It’s sounds obvious but many people are too afraid of what people my think of them if they ask a seemingly obvious question.

Honesty is just fine

Acknowledging areas of weakness or gaps in understanding, far from creating a negative picture you, will actually increase your standing with people around you. Understanding who you are and what you can (and can’t) do is a sign of strength. It will produce self confidence which others will feed off. And if you can pin point the areas where you need to improve then you are in a much stronger position to do something about them. People around you will recognise this and therefore have more confidence in you.

A quick answer that,  further down the road, proves to not the be the best solution, causes problems. It might make you appear to be on top of your game at that moment in time but it will leave people with less confidence in you in future. However, a more considered approach, which yields good results, leaves everybody with greater confidence in your ability. It will breed trust.

Fear can be a big issue; both for team members and team leaders. We are afraid to appear weak, or slow, or unreliable. We are concerned that our boss or our peers will think we do not know what we are doing.

It’s worth remembering that asking questions and saying, “I don’t know”, are not a sign of weakness. In fact, they are a sign of strength.

2 thoughts on “It’s OK to not know.

  1. This post really resonates, and I agree wholeheartedly. The kinds of answers you describe are what impress me at interview. If a prospective employee tries to blather their way through a technical question rather than discussing how (and why) the question points to a gap in their knowledge, they are one to avoid. Also these kinds of people can be a pain to work with, answering quickly and without thinking or refusing to admit to ‘not knowing’ just leads to pain for others in the long run and possibly even bad feeling in a team as others notice the behaviour.

  2. Completely agree with this.

    As a web project manager myself I can fully appreciate the natural human instinct to try and blag an answer rather than say you don’t know – but, I can also testify to the power of just being honest and saying you don’t know.

    With any team member I much prefer this answer too rather than a weak attempt to cover it. The respect comes from knowing the natural instinct is to blag it, so anyone saying they don’t know shows a good strength of character in them…

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