Who Do I Tell "I don't know" To?

When interviewing a junior programmer a couple weeks ago, I was asked a very insightful question: “Who can I tell ‘I don’t know’ to?” At first, I wasn’t sure what they were exactly aiming at with the question. But, as I formulated an answer, I realized this was a great question. Let me share a longer version of the answer with you.

It’s OK To Say You Don’t Know

It’s very important to admit when you don’t know something. This vulnerability opens you up to learn. By admitting you don’t know, you can also escape some pretty bad situations that would otherwise be your fault.

If you continue to save face and pretend as if you do know, this can be very dangerous. First, those who actually do know won’t think to educate you about things you don’t know. Second, you may inadvertently make some mistakes that you wouldn’t, had you known what you claim to.

When I interview people, I tend to push them further and further into the more technical realm. Part of this is to see where the limits of the technical skill are. The other part, though, is to see what happens: will they admit they don’t know something, or will they try to lie and cover it up. I want people who have the capacity to learn, to be vulnerable, and to be honest on my team.

Dealing with Stakeholders when you don’t know

Some “genius” somewhere decided that it should be prevailing wisdom that the ‘Yes’ (wo)man is the way to work with your business stakeholders. Never tell them you don’t know something, or they’ll want to fire you. If you tell them you can’t, they’ll find someone who can.

This isn’t the case.

What your business stakeholders need is for expectations to be set. They know that not everyone can know everything. What they can’t do is synthesize the solution on their own. Therefore, when they hear a singular “I don’t know,” it’s a black hole with death on the other side for their business.

That’s why you be honest about not knowing, but then set expectations of when you will. “I don’t know how to do that, but give me a week. In 5 days from now, I’ll come back to you with a proposal of how I might help - or with a recommendation of someone else who can.”

When you set expectations, not knowing is fine. You’re still going to solve their problem, and that’s what they really hired you for: not what you know, but what problems you can solve for them.

Dealing with Peers when you don’t know

When you’re working with your peers, its fine to say you don’t know. Where stakeholders or business people might not know right away, your fellow peers will figure it out really quick if you’re lying. It’s ok not to know something, it’s not ok to lie about knowing something.

When working with your peers, you can say “I don’t know” and don’t have to provide much more context. Someone who does know will likely volunteer the information. If no one knows, then you can decide, collectively, how to find out.

Final Notes

Whether you’re speaking with your business stakeholders or your peers, do not lie about knowing things you don’t know. It’s never the right answer, and can have dangerous side effects. For stakeholders, honestly explain that you don’t know, but give expectations on when you intend to find out. For your peers, join in at an equal level by admitting you don’t know, and then see where the conversation goes after that.

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