July 29, 2014

The Benefits of Saying "I Don't Know" in Business... and Medicine

A few months ago, a friend said he liked it when people answered questions with “I don’t know.” He thought the response was all too rare, that it showed strength – not weakness, that it showed wisdom – not ignorance, and that it encouraged dialogue, engagement, exploration. 

He said he feels like running for the hills when in the company of people who are sure about everything (even the big questions that don’t – and can’t -- have answers) and who rarely miss the opportunity to pontificate on their positions.

No, there’s nothing wrong with having clear, well-reasoned opinions on all the important topics of the day. Still, I understood my friend’s comments.

Soon after, I saw an article by ad man Curt Hanke on the business site Inc.com. The title? “The Power of ‘I Don’t Know.’”

Hanke began by citing a 2012 IBM study of companies’ chief marketing officers. When these executives were asked if they were prepared for all the unpredictable complexities and changes coming their way over the next five years, 52 percent of the CMOs said “no, I do not feel prepared.”

The author wasn’t surprised that so many executives acknowledged uncertainty about all the mysterious and unknowable developments that lay ahead for their industry. Instead, he was amazed that so many – 48 percent – felt prepared. Did they really feel prepared? Was their positive response driven by bravado – or the deadly fear of appearing weak – as much as anything else? Were they simply unable to say “I don’t know”?

In his essay, Hanke described four benefits that come to leaders when they say “I don’t know.”
“I Don’t Know” Creates Possibilities.  It’s been said that the key to success is to never stop learning, while the key to failure is to think you know it all. Modern-day marketers need to be comfortable acknowledging their blind spots. It’s truly impossible to be an expert at everything in an area of exploding apertures, approaches, and analytics; by starting with a baseline of what is not known, exploration into untapped possibilities for the organization can begin in earnest. 
“I Don’t Know” Inspires Engagement.  Do you want to work with or for the person who knows everything? Or would you prefer the leader who wants everyone to use his or her talents, curiosity, and passion to help find the answer? By creating space for new data, ideas, and perspectives, “I Don’t Know” helps marketers (and businesses) get the most from their teams. 
“I Don’t Know” Defends Against Complacency.  Andrew Grove, former president and CEO of Intel, is famous for saying, “Only the paranoid survive.” With not just increasing information but also decreasing control in the participation age, great marketers (and leaders) need to fight against getting comfortable. It is incredibly easy to fall into patterns, particularly when the regression line is gently nudging north. As such, creating a culture of inquiry -- where “I Don’t Know” (and “Let’s Find Out”) are valued -- helps create constructive agitation. 
“I Don’t Know” Is Just More Fun.  The 2013 Gallup State of the American Workplace Report found that only 30 percent of employees are engaged and inspired at work. Yikes. By creating a culture of “I Don’t Know,” marketers help build a place where most employees want to work -- where their opinion is heard, where there efforts matter, and where they can truly make a difference. In sum: Happier employees, better productivity, and superior outcomes.
Hanke summed it up this way: "...in my career, the clients and marketers who got the most from their agencies and teams were the ones who were open -- and dare I say, fearless -- in acknowledging what they didn’t know and challenging everyone around them to relentlessly bring new data, fresh insights, and any and all ideas to the table."

There was still one more surprise that followed my friend’s comments about saying “I don’t know.”

"I Don't Know" -- From Business to Medicine
After seeing Hanke’s article, I read a blog post by internationally-recognized cardiologist Kevin Campbell. In his piece, Campbell explains how the same leadership advantages that accrue from saying “I don’t know” in business settings apply to the practice of medicine, too.

At first, I thought, “Wait a minute. I’m not sure I want to hear my doctors say 'I don’t know.' We need their clear and decisive guidance – based on all their studies and years of practical experience – to help us fix or manage our own difficult and complicated health issues. Right?"

Campbell thinks doctors’ leadership roles – with patients, with patients’ families and caregivers, with colleagues, with specialists – are funadamentally the same connections that business executives have with their own constituencies. In the case of doctors, the Holy Grail isn’t the “bottom line” or stock value, but patient welfare.

Here’s how Campbell translates Hanke’s four benefits of “I don’t know” to the practice of medicine:
"I Don't Know" Creates Possibilities.  As a leader, saying “I Don’t Know” in medicine, may create an opportunity to bond with patients, families and team members. Having the courage to articulate your shortcomings as the leader may actually garner more respect and tighten bonds through your honesty. 
"I Don't Know" Inspires Engagement.  As a leader, saying “I Don’t Know” in medicine may provide opportunities for others to take center stage and bring forward ideas that they may have otherwise kept to themselves. It allows others to think more creatively and inspires team members to find “ownership” in working to solve a particular clinical mystery or treatment problem. 
"I Don't Know" Avoids Complacency.  As a leader, saying “I Don’t Know” in medicine provides me with the motivation to learn more and to be better. Not knowing the answer right away drives me to reflect on my particular skill set and take stock in what I can do better both as a leader and as a team member. When the leader works to improve, it often inspires growth among team members as well. 
"I Don't Know" Inspires Fun.  During Difficult Times–As a leader, saying “I Don’t Know” rather than a positive effect on morale–A culture of “I Don’t Know” produces engaged team members and these engaged team members are more productive. Ultimately a more productive medical team results in more positive patient outcomes.
Dr. Campbell recaps his thoughts: "We must be prepared–with knowledge of disease and the best available therapies. We must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each individual on our medical team (including our own) and we must be able to motivate those in very different roles to band together for common good. We must lead patients and families with compassion–we must understand things from their perspective and apply their needs into the equations we use to make clinical decisions. We must lead both groups with honesty. We must be willing to say “I Don’t Know” when appropriate."

Room for One More Benefit?
To both Hanke’s and Campbell’s lists of four benefits, I’d add one more:

"I Don't Know" Reinforces the Value of the Leader’s Opinions in General.  When a leader has the courage and wisdom to occasionally say “I don’t know” in complicated or difficult situations, his team members – in business or medicine – have every reason to feel just that much more confident when their leader shares a clear position on other matters. His credibility is increased, not diminished.

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