Business Lesson 2: If You Don’t Know, Say “I Don’t Know”

in collaboration with Ira Fialkow and Ivy Remoreras

Is there a secret formula for success in business – and in your career?  Probably not. But I believe it makes sense to learn from the people I respect and who have been successful themselves.

Case in point: Ira Fialkow was the Executive Vice President for Shared Services at CEMEX, until recently. His career spans 25 years and he is a highly respected leader in his field. This series marks the culmination of 25 business lessons documented and developed by Ira over the past 25 years of his career. Ira used to distribute these lessons to the team every year. In this series, I will endeavor to share the 25 business lessons that I’ve learned from Ira and our shared services team.

This is part two of the series: 25 Lessons for Work (and Life!) – 3-Minute Coaching Sessions

Business Lesson 2: If You Don’t Know, Say “I Don’t Know”.

Ira once told me, “This isn’t a school test where, if you don’t know the correct answer, you take a guess based on what you think is the best answer. If you don’t know the answer, then simply say ‘I don’t know.’ The worst thing that can happen is that decisions will be made and actions taken based on wrong or incomplete information.” Admitting that you don’t know something is taking responsibility and having accountability. 

This second lesson is about attitude. I once overheard Ira telling someone, “You’re lucky you KNOW that you don’t know. You now have an open mind and the opportunity to learn something new and find a real solution!”  This is simple and yet so difficult for many people to practice. In this article, we will look at two perspectives of this essential lesson – (a) learning to say “I don’t know” per se; and (b) openness to learning through the humble attitude of genuinely “not-knowing.”

Saying, “I Don’t Know”

The fact of the matter is, it is so difficult for people to say, “I don’t know.” Of course, it’s normal that you would always want to project yourself as knowledgeable to others; showing that you know (all the time!) is one of the best ways to look good. Most of us don’t like it when we ask subordinates at work to explain what went wrong, and instead of getting facts we are met with three little words: “I don’t know.” It’s frustrating, isn’t it? It’s worse, though, when you get “answers” composed of hardly verified truths and opinions. What happens when you take what you are told as fact and respond accordingly – for example, a customer complaint – and later find out that something completely different happened? By then, conflict has been created and it has further complicated the problem.

Of course, you can’t expect somebody to know everything. Here are two simple ways to say “I don’t know” and still be accountable:

  • The obvious – say: “I don’t know.” You can include an action or commitment, though, so say “I don’t know, but I’ll take responsibility to find the facts, or answers, for you and I’ll suggest a solution.”
  • If you have some knowledge to begin with, but you need to verify it, you may say, “I’m not as informed as I would like to be but this is what I think, based on the information I have. I will look into this further and get back to you right away.” Here you are being honest about the fact that what you think you know may not necessarily be accurate. So, if you are asked to speak out, your audience knows that it’s an opinion.

We grow up afraid of our own ignorance and terrified that it may show. I admire people who have the ability to admit, “I don’t know.” There are many ways to say this, but the most important thing is to be honest, concise and responsible about what you say.

“Not Knowing” as a Powerful Openness to Learn

Think about going to a meeting, seminar or training with the arrogant attitude that there is absolutely nothing new to be learned. Surely, you will arrive disinterested and full of your own perception of the subject matter. Chances are, you won’t learn anything new. The advantage of not knowing is the opportunity to experience learning. Genuine “not-knowing” is a sign of humility and openness that precedes the leap into finding true meaning. We question not only whether we’ll find answers to questions, but also how to learn new things. How many times have you gone to similar work sessions or training programs but learned something new every time? Maybe it’s from hearing someone else’s perspective and how they applied the knowledge. Maybe it’s an insight that helps you link multiple ideas together and come up with a new way of applying the knowledge to a problem. Or maybe it’s an open attitude that allowed you to listen in a new way.

Being open to new ideas shows a willingness to transcend what you know, to look beyond the conventional and obvious view, and to come up with new insights and use these to find solutions.

When people talk about innovation – this is what they are talking about!

Business Lesson 2 Takeaways:

  • Acknowledging that you don’t know something is akin to taking responsibility and having accountability.
  • People should not be discouraged from saying “I don’t know” in a company.
  • There are many ways to say, “I don’t know,” but the most important thing is to be honest, concise and responsible about what you say.
  • The positive side of not knowing is the opportunity it provides to experience learning, gain insights, and come up with a better solution.  
  • Genuine not-knowing is a sign of humility and openness that can lead to expanding one’s knowledge.

Link to Lesson 1: Have a mentor (even if they don’t know it). Be a mentor (someone is watching you).

About the collaborators:

Ira Fialkow is the SVP of Member Services at Peeriosity. Peeriosity is a confidential network of leading companies from across the world committed to collaborating openly with each other in a completely secure environment with interactions free of consultants and vendors. Prior to Peeriosity, Ira was EVP of Shared Services at CEMEX and Rinker Group (acquired by CEMEX is 2007) from 1990 through joining Peeriosity in October 2010. Rinker Group was the initial recipient of the Best Mature Shared Services Award in 2003. Ira lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and has been the champion of his fantasy football league in three of the past five years.

Glenn Remoreras is an IT Manager at CEMEX. He brings over 12 years of experience as an IT director, business processes manager, project leader, and consultant. He has focused on enabling business solutions through the use of IT capabilities. Glenn has been involved with various post merger integration projects. 
Ivy Remoreras is a marketing professional with eight years of extensive experience, particularly in product management, communications and promotions as a manager, university instructor and consultant. She believes in constant learning and has a Masters degree in Business Administration (MBA). Having resided in Europe, Asia and North America, she speaks four languages.

7 thoughts on “Business Lesson 2: If You Don’t Know, Say “I Don’t Know”

  1. A past colleague of mine was very knowledgeable, but not afraid to admit when he didn’t know something. I really respected him for that. Unfortunately, many times people are labeled as subject matter experts, and are expected to know everything on a subject. This makes them reluctant to admit they don’t know something, and raises the expectations of those seeking assistance.

  2. Very interesting article, and I would like to add that on my experience it is difficult of course to say I do not know and also it feels very bad at first when you see the reaction of the people with their body language and expressions meaning something like, mmm probably you will not get back to me or you may be back to me too late, mmm maybe I should ask to somebody else.

    But the real reward comes to you when you get back to the person or department in a short time with not only the answer to the question but with examples and experiences and tips that you recollected from other people and allows you to draw a full picture of the problem, different scenarios of the solution and risks based on a research analyzing people experiences and different sources.

    I believe that once you do that, not only you receive credit for answering the question and know the subject but also you receive trust and confidence from that person or department by not only answering the question but by showing that you care about the problem and making yourself part of the solution.

  3. I actually got a job once because I told the truth in the interview and answer “I don’t Know” to one of the questions. I was applying for a job to be an English teacher, so one of the questions was, how would I explain a specific past tense to my students, and I sincerely didn’t know the answer, so instead of trying to tell a lie, I just answered, I don’t know, but I will find out by searching in grammar books and asking my friends who are also teachers. The person who was doing the interview was so surprised with my answer, she told me she had never got that answer before, and that she really liked that I was being honest…. and I got the job!!!! =)

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience related to this lesson Nelly. You did the right thing to answer, “I don’t know” in that situation when you really didn’t know the answer to the question being asked of you. It takes a lot of courage to do that. More importantly, you showed sense of accountability by following up your honest answer with an action plan, relating what you will do with it. I think your honesty and sense of accountability got you the job. They made the right choice!

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