Why Saying “I Don’t Know” Can Make You a Better Leader

Leaders can fall into a trap of thinking that being a good leader means having all the answers, and that not knowing everything is a weakness that should be hidden. Being a good leader means being able to connect with, guide and inspire your team. It is okay to not have all of the answers. No leader is perfect, and no one expects them to be. Being able to be transparent about when you don’t have the answers and engaging your team in the process of working through solutions will make you a more relatable and trusted leader.
This is especially true when it comes to communication. Somewhere along the way saying “I don’t know” became perceived as an unacceptable answer. However, what your employees want is communication early and often, even if you don’t have all or even some of the answers. It is nearly impossible to over communicate. When in doubt err on the side of communicating more often than you feel is necessary. Communicate what you know, identify what you’re still working on figuring out and share a timeline for when you will follow back up with them. Circling back regularly lets someone know that you’re still working on it, what progress you’ve made and that you haven’t forgotten about them. Frequent communication can decrease anxiety around the unknown and uncertainty while showing how dedicated you are to working toward a resolution.
Leaders who value and demonstrate honest and open communication over having all the answers can usually expect to get the same in return from their employees. When employees feel that their opinions are valued and their insights are wanted, they tend to be more forthcoming with constructive feedback. It also shows them that it is okay for them to admit when they don’t know the answer and how it is okay to be transparent when faced with a new challenge. Leaders who have the courage to communicate that they don’t have all the answers, or are still figuring out the best way to proceed can take advantage of the collective knowledge of their team in working through finding the answers together. You can ask your employees their thoughts through surveys, open feedback mechanisms or by encouraging in-person dialogue.
Rarely are leaders in the best position to know every challenge their company faces at any given time. Research shows that only a small percentage of issues ever make it to the upper levels of leadership. Effective leaders generally don’t accept incomplete facts as the basis for decisions in other facets of their business, so it’s only natural that they would tend to withhold communication from their workforce until they are sure they have a complete and correct answer. But being honest, forthcoming, and sometimes a bit vulnerable can empower employees to be active participants in solving problems rather than waiting for word from the top. It will create a more engaged workforce and a more transparent culture.

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