Somewhere along the line, we mistook confidence for competence. We decided that decisiveness was a mark of good leader. And then we started promoting the most confident deciders…even if their decisions were terrible. The logical end to all of this is that now we struggle with leaders in all domains confidently asserting their thoughts on a certain issue or confidently presenting the solution to a problem they’ve just learned about. We hear that confidence in their voice and it can become all too easy to assume it means they’re presenting a well-thought out plan of action.
The truth is, there is little correlation between confidence and competence. In fact, it can often go the opposite way. More than 20 years ago, psychologist David Dunning and Justin Kruger demonstrated that when people knew very little about a topic or situation, they were very likely to over-assess their knowledge and ability. The less they knew, the more confident they were in their expertise.
Ignorance wasn’t bliss; it was confidence.
And confident ignorance can lead to disaster.
For leaders, a powerful antidote is simple acknowledging that you don’t know. When you’re asked a question you don’t know the answer to, just say “I don’t know” and then commit to finding the answer. When your asked for your advice on a situation, you can just say “I don’t know, let me think more and get back to you.” Beyond giving you the opportunity to find the right answer, “I don’t know” communicates your own intellectual curiosity and your intellectual humility.
Yes. You have to be committed to finding out. And Yes. You should probably share with people when you do know. But asserting with a pigheaded certainty that you already know is far more damaging than admitting “I don’t know” and then taking the time for you and your team go find out.
“I don’t know” even has a spillover effect of sending a message to your people that it’s okay not to have all the answers. It creates a form of psychological safety that people around you don’t have to hide their doubts. And when people share that doubts and questions, we all benefit by examining the topic or issue more to resolve those questions.
If you want a culture where finding the right answer is valued more than faking the right answer—if you want a culture of actual competence and not just confident ignorance—then get used to saying “I don’t know” more and encouraging those around you to do the same.
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