Power Of "I Don't Know"
Admitting you don't know something is a crucial skill for engineers and leaders to develop
Here's another article in my Mastering Leadership series. Failure to admit what you don't know may appear to be a subtle issue, but it can have a profound impact on your effectiveness as a team player. The article goes into
Why we don’t admit that we don’t know
Benefits of admitting
How can you figure what you don’t know
How to actually say “I don’t know”
Lastly, how do you handle other people admitting ‘I don’t know’ to you
I hope you can take away actionable tips from this article
Why We Don't Admit That We Don't Know
We have this false belief that we should know everything. We feel vulnerable not knowing things, and it is treated as a sign of weakness. However, that is an unrealistic expectation. We cannot know everything and have to depend on others to fill in the gaps.
Sometimes, we're unaware of our lack of knowledge. This lack of self-awareness can lead us to respond with what we think we know, even when it's inaccurate.
How do I know this? I experienced all these behaviors when I started my career. Even now, as a staff engineer, I may fall into the same pattern. In this article, I'll share my observations and what has been effective for me.
Benefits of admitting you don’t know
Clarity: When you admit not knowing something, it signals to your peers that you need more information before making a decision. This fosters a more in-depth discussion of ideas and concerns.
Improved Communication - Being transparent about what you don't know can prevent misunderstandings, especially when dealing with those who don’t communicate effectively. It can break the cycle of repetitive questions and lead to productive conversations.
Enhanced Critical Thinking - Admitting your lack of knowledge is the first step in deepening your understanding of a problem. It opens the door to learning and critical thinking.
Figuring out what you don't know?
Discovering what you don't know can be a challenge. Here are somethings that help me:
To keep it focused, I will assume you are trying to learn about a product/API that your team owns, and you are learning to propose a change.
Test your knowledge! - Keep digging to understand your system, your dependencies, your customers & partners, etc. Keep asking "why" to understand how the stack interoperates across layers, what the system guarantees are, and what can go wrong.
Challenge the status quo - You will come across a lot of previously made decisions. Some may even seem trivial. I have seen the smartest engineers question very obvious status quo. That not only helps them understand nuanced & corner cases but also helps them find impactful projects.
Trust but verify - A teammate strongly believes in an idea, but you don’t see why their passion is justified. Ask. You want to be convinced with facts. The goal of asking is not to be difficult but simply to bridge the gap in your understanding.
Seek feedback - Got an idea? Don’t keep it to yourself. Ask the stakeholders for their input. Sometimes, you need to write a detailed document explaining the problem and why you propose a solution. Your thought process needs to be clear to the readers. As a result, they can point out what you are missing.
Listen - Sometimes people are not direct with their feedback. They may even sugarcoat their concerns, which will make it hard for you to hear an agreement. Your job is to tease out the actionable callouts from it. Your goal is to keep finding what you don’t know.
How to say "I don't know"?
Alright! Now that you have learned how to identify what you don't know, the next challenging part is expressing it.
As a new graduate, I used to be amazed when experienced senior engineers would be extremely transparent about their understanding. They never hesitated, and that immediately changed the tone of the discussion.
Control your inner voice - In a moment of intense discussion, be mindful of your composure and slow down. Take the time to validate your understanding, and when you are unclear, be curious and ask questions.
Watch your tone - Ensure that saying "I don't know" fosters collaboration and inclusiveness, rather than shutting down the conversation.
Debate the problem and not people - Instead of challenging individuals, invite others to brainstorm solutions. The focus should be on finding the right solution to the problem.
I certainly hope I don't overly inspire you. I don't want you to say "I don't know" everywhere, especially when you are asked your name.
There are situations where you need to take action. For example, if there is an incident that is affecting your customers, you may not know the best possible action to take. That is okay. You should take reasonable actions to mitigate the problem. Saying "I don't know" and waiting for some angel to rescue you is unlikely to happen.
Listening to "I don't know"
As a leader, it's essential not only to embrace saying "I don't know" but also to recognize when others need help. Encourage openness and provide support without shaming or belittling those who admit they don't know. Be approachable, so people feel comfortable being vulnerable with you.
One of my managers asked for my help by being transparent about not knowing how to manage a complex situation. That made it clear that they were asking for my help. I helped by brainstorming and providing my expertise. So, you have to be approachable for people to be vulnerable with you.
In conclusion, acknowledging what we don't know and expressing it can lead to better communication, deeper understanding, and improved problem-solving, both for ourselves and those we interact with.
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Others posts to not miss
Strategies and examples on how to say “no” by Irina Stanescu
Top 3 SWE Skills I Picked Up On The Job by Ryan Peterman
50+ Resources I swear by as a Senior Software Engineer by Jordan Cutler
Additionally, I have some exciting collaborations coming up in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!