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January 25, 2023
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Leaders, It's OK to Say "I Don't Know"

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Telling your school (or district) staff you don't have a clue is a "golden opportunity" to show humility.
Leadership
The Power of “I Don’t Know”
Credit: Iurii Stepanov / Shutterstock
I’ll never forget the unexpected compliment I received one day at work. A teacher from my former department was chatting with my current team, telling them: “You know what I like best about Liz? She’s the only administrator I’ve ever heard say, ‘I don’t know’ to a room full of people.” I was a little surprised, not only at the apparent rarity of the phrase “I don’t know” among leaders, but also at the positive impression it had made. I say the phrase so often that I should get it engraved on my office door, like a coat of arms. I always assumed, though, that teachers hate hearing it. They want an answer I don’t have it, so an “I don’t know” would count against me, right? Maybe not. 
The way this teacher described it, he was sick of hearing administrators invent answers, improvise policies, or shut down a conversation when they didn’t have a ready explanation for a decision. To be honest, I’ve done those unwise things at times, and maybe you have too. It’s an easy trap, especially when you’re in front of a group and you’re supposed to provide clarity on a tricky situation. Maybe your teachers want to know the rationale behind a policy handed down to you by central office, but you’re just the messenger. Maybe they’re asking what will happen if the board doesn’t fund the new arts program, as if you carry a crystal ball in your work bag. Maybe they just want more information on how parent conferences will work this year, but the leadership team hasn’t thought through every detail yet. 
You have one second to decide: Do you try to answer or do you admit that you don’t know? If you’re like me, your brain puts all the information you have into a pile, and if the information pile looks sizeable enough, you hazard a response. Personally, I know I’ve measured correctly if: the answers I give can withstand further questioning (because more questions will come) and if I’m confident my boss would be OK with the answer (because she will hear about it). If I don’t think I can meet these two criteria, I choose to admit that I don’t know. 

I say the phrase so often that I should get it engraved on my office door, like a coat of arms.

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Saying some version of “I don’t know,” on the other hand, can pull a leader out of her comfort zone, and it can tempt us to all sorts of wrong behavior: becoming defensive, inventing answers, or brushing off the importance of the issue, to name a few. If done correctly, however, it can actually build respect and enhance relationships. As someone who takes this route frequently, I’ve learned a few tips for success.

How to Say “I Don’t Know” While Keeping Your Cool

1. Check your attitude

You might feel embarrassed, ashamed, or defensive when forced to admit ignorance. How dare that treacherous mob expose me as anything less than omniscient? you think in the heat of the moment—but get a grip. The situation is not about you at all; it’s about whatever policy or program you’re being grilled on. It only feels like it’s about you because so many eyes are pointed in your direction. Remembering that you are not necessarily the cause of a problem, but rather, the conduit of information, will help calm your nerves and reframe your attitude. You need to adopt a collaborative, solution-seeking stance when admitting you don’t have a ready answer. The full response isn’t “I don’t know.” It’s “I don’t know yet, but I want to find an answer.”

2. Get the phrasing (and tone) right. 

Find an authentic way of saying, “That’s a great question, and I really appreciate you bringing it up.” You want to sound like yourself, not like a disingenuous stooge. If your teachers sense that you are repeating a stock phrase to save face while wincing in irritation on the inside, they won’t believe that you care about their questions. Then, too, you want to say, “I don’t have the answer yet” in a way that suggests that you are just as eager as they are to find this elusive answer. 

The full response isn’t 'I don’t know.' It’s 'I don’t know yet, but I want to find an answer.'

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3. Understand the question. 

To find the right answer for your team, you have to understand the issue deeply. Ask questions back to the group, and keep asking until you feel you have a clear picture. What else have they read or been told about the issue? What have they tried to do, and how did it go? How important is the issue? Who is impacted by it? There’s a chance that your staff may answer their own questions or devise their own solutions through your questioning, but even they do not, you will likely walk out of the room with the information you need. Your actions will also have demonstrated your commitment to finding an answer, and your staff will respect this.

4. Practice discernment. 

Panic is the enemy of common sense, so you might forget a few truths when you’re standing in front of a crowd, admitting you don’t know. First, remember that not all questions deserve an answer. You know this from your own experience. How many times have you seen a cantankerous person ask an absurd hypothetical question in the middle of a tense meeting for the sheer pleasure of watching the leader squirm? (For me: too many.) You do not need to dignify ridiculous quibbles with an answer. Calmly describe the question as largely immaterial, offer to meet with the questioner later, and move on. Similarly, remember that not every problem is yours to solve. If you believe the question is valid and within your purview, go find an answer. If, however, the issue is so far removed from your domain that you need to move mountains to find a solution, it’s probably not your burden to bear. 

5. Commit to finding an answer. 

Assuming you have identified the question and determined its worth, tell your team that you will find an answer. Be as candid and descriptive as you can: what can you definitely find out, and what will you try to find out? When will you provide the answer? How much room for discussion or negotiation will there be once you’ve found the answer? Describing your process reinforces your sincerity and alleviates any hard feelings your team may have. It also sets realistic expectations.

6. Follow through with an answer. 

When you’ve had whatever conversations were needed, now you have the true pleasure of following through on a commitment to your people. Whether in person or in writing, repeat the question, describe your exploratory process, then explain the answer. This is a great opportunity to tell them how much you value their honesty and patience, and to assure them that while you may not know everything, you’re always willing to learn. If you do this again and again, your team will come to know you as an approachable, dependable leader. 
It’s tough to admit to yourself—let alone to your staff—that you don’t know something, but every time you do, treat it as a golden opportunity. You can prove your humility, your integrity, and your dedication to your team in your efforts to serve them and improve your knowledge. In 10 years’ administrative experience, I have never been met with anything other than gratitude from teachers when I took time to discover something and bring it back to the team. I suspect that if you get comfortable with the phrase “I don’t know,” your confidence and relationships will improve in surprising ways. 

Elizabeth Dampf is the director of professional learning at Round Lake Area Schools 116 in the Chicago area.

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