I don't know: 2 ways

"I don't know"

This tiny statement has 2 dichotomous meanings and effects. In its:
  • empowering mode - its an invitation to find out, to learn, to grow - opening future possibilities
  • paralytic mode - it is an invitation to not proceed, to block - closing or limiting possibilities
Which of these are meant by the person saying it and perceived by the person hearing it have massive implications for how the conversation will go.

A recent horror story … averted

Recently I was helping a person starting on a new project, they did not have the back ground, had not worked on the project. From my point of view, knowing all this in advance, not a problem - after all they had shown they were cluey enough in other contexts. But they scattered their conversation with fear of not knowing statements.

Initially I perceived their not knowing as an unwillingness - after all I knew they didn't know, why did they keep emphasising it? Facing my own deadlines, I made the mistake of perceiving them as a closing down of the willingness to learn in the future.

This conversation was on its way to disaster.

Thankfully, I dug a little deeper (not quite soon enough for a good people manager1, but thankfully before we got to something unrecoverable or regrettable), and asked the question "I get you don't know. I know this. Why is it worrying you so much?". It turns out that he was worried about perceived performance; how quickly he could get the job done was his metric of success. This lead us to have a much better conversation, hopefully, where we discussed our already understanding his need to learn and initial impact on producing code.

We hopefully moved from the closed form to the open form.

The manager learned that it wasn't not wanting to learn, but fear of being perceived less well

The worker learned, hopefully, that we were investing in his learning, and wanted his success - so we could do more in the future

Where to from here

What are the practical implications we can draw from this interaction

A Personal Lesson

I come from a research background. Conversations starting with "I don't know" followed by how you are going to find out are the start of the challenge. The thought of doing the same thing over and over and not learning is a nightmare.

This reminds me:
  • My motivations are not everyones.
  • You are told what some feels is important from their perspective, they may not think to tell you what is important from your perspective.

A Management Lesson


Yes, there are people who generally are only comfortable doing what they are doing. The new is frightening and they don't want to go there. (I was burnt by one and in a small part of a business where everyone does everything, it can be crippling)

But, unwillingness to be open to the new may not be driven by not wanting to learn, it might be a manifestation of other concerns. With a little bit of digging, understanding and little to no more investment than you were already planning, it could all be solved. The managed may not be able to read minds or understand your intentions, you need to explain that they will be supported.

Change mindsets

Put the work in to make people understand that things are going to change and they will be supported in the change. The one constant is change.

Make "I don't know" an opportunity for growth.

Sometimes you do have to give up, but make sure

As mentioned I did end up with one charge who really did resist the new. One of the reasons I ended up so frustrated is that I thought I could make change, and failed. There really are people who are closed to the new (at least in the area you are relating to) and they pose a significant challenge in managing them, especially, in a more open team. We ended up in a negative cycle of not asking for more and not giving more, while other team members were advancing; it did not to end really satisfactorily for either party.

A Lesson for the Managed

Don't stop with "I don't know" … show that you are looking for an answer, even if it is in the wrong place, or you don't know where, you are indicating that not knowing is not going to stop you.

The Learning Organisation

Even small parts of an organisation can choose to be learning organisations; people coming into them may not realise this, nor what it means to be part of an organisation that prepares for change.

The cultural conversation needs to be had frequently if it is to be heard, especially if an organisation is composed of multiple parts and many reward structures.


There are several streams here, but they all relate to culture. If you want an open learning organisation:
  • Value learning
  • Support learning
  • Make "I don't know" into an opportunity
  • Communicate that it is an opportunity
  • When people start a new activity teach them to "fish" i.e give suggestions about how they will find out
  • Some people will not come along for the ride, while others grab hold and give it all they can

A near miss of a conversational disaster resulted in some self reflection and some tangible steps to furthering a learning culture

1 And if you are reading this, and guess its you, you have my commitment to do better in the future.

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

— Winston Churchill