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The Benefits of Saying, "I Don't Know"

About a decade ago, I was in a class about facilitation tools and techniques with a bunch of other aspiring facilitators. Each of us, in turn, had to facilitate—using the Creative Problem-Solving process in front of each other—then solicit feedback and critiques. Most everyone in the group had done some professional facilitating or moderating already. One of the participants, who was newer to the field, stopped mid-facilitation and said, “I’m not really sure what to do next.” Instead of snickers and eye-rolls, I saw several people nod in agreement, and offer helpful hints on how to move forward. When it came time for me to offer my facilitation feedback, I told him, “The best thing you did was say, ‘I don’t know.’”

Having the ability to admit you don’t know something is a strength. This humility is not about shyness or weakness—and helps keep our egos from getting in the way of innovative thinking. An article from Behavioral Scientist, quoting a Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist said it best, “believing that you ‘must be right’—in other words, lacking intellectual humility—can actually stymie discovery, learning, and progress.” It turns out, researchers are finding intellectual humility has all kind of benefits: from being more motivated to learn, to cultivating a long-term growth mindset (the belief that even if you don’t know something, you can learn it and get smarter).

Whether it was click-bait or not, the article’s headline—"The Benefits of Admitting When You Don’t Know”—not only caught my eye, but reminded me of my facilitation class story, AND the countless times I failed to admit when I didn’t know something (and didn’t want to speak up for fear of looking unintelligent).

Practice Humility While Practicing Creativity

To state it plainly, humility keeps us honest. No one can say they have the complete picture, ever. At best, we can aspire to have a better partial picture than others with similar education/training. We’ve all succumbed at some point to the human inclination to fake it when we don’t know the answer, or slant things our way to save face. But staying humble is good human capital. Strong people can afford to be humble while still pushing for better results. It’s inspiring to see anyone—but especially our leaders—say “I don’t know” when they really don’t. We want our leaders to lead, and we want them to be human.

Humility also sets up an environment for learning—not just so we can confirm hypotheses we already have—but actually be open and learn something new. Anyone working in today’s business environment knows we’re prone to rushing to solutions—which prevents teams from investing in truly unique and relevant innovation. This means when early decisions are necessary, we can’t let them be carved in stone. Intuition can often dictate when it’s time to lock things down for the sake of a successful launch. But until then, we should hold our early decisions loosely. Consider those decisions to be the best that was known at the time and be ready to add or revise as new information becomes available.

As the Behavioral Scientist article states, “there’s a lot about intellectual humility we don’t yet understand. But the burgeoning empirical research suggests that intellectual humility can benefit learning and perhaps bridge ideological gaps.” With these new insights in hand, I’m excited to move on to my next challenge knowing I won’t always have the answers—and to cultivate an environment where my colleagues don’t have to either. I just need to be open to learning, and feel pretty good about admitting, “I don’t know” once in a while.

Liza Babcock

Liza Babcock is a Creative and Marketing Writer at Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.