One could make a strong argument that the three scariest words to state aloud (particularly in the workplace) are these: I don’t know. That phrase is an explicit admission that we’re less than perfect. Our fear of stating “I don’t know” is amplified by the worries that we should know it, perhaps we once knew it but have since forgotten, and that everyone else knows it.
There are two alternative approaches to saying “I don’t know.” The first is to remain silent. You might look away and hide your head, try to change the subject, or excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or refill your coffee. The second, and far more damaging in the long run than admitting one’s ignorance, is to act like you know. Think about times when you’re asked a question and you’re confident about the answer. Your response will be concise, definitive, and coherent. If you’re anything like the rest of us, there have probably been occasions when you haven’t known the answer to a question but felt compelled to respond nonetheless. In those situations, your response was probably lengthy, convoluted, and effectively meaningless. We use far more words to cover up a lack of knowledge than when we actually know what we’re talking about. And because we have no idea what the hell we’re talking about, we’re far more likely to commit a verbal faux pas that could haunt us in the future.
The moral of the story? Do not “fake it ‘til you make it.” Admit your ignorance and allow yourself to learn something in the process. Confessing that you are not an all-knowing automaton is a sign of self-confidence. It will demonstrate your integrity, engender respect and, most significantly, encourage others to embrace the same openness. The culture of an organization, community, or family can be positively impacted when people feel comfortable about sharing their shortcomings. Over time you’ll experience a greater sense of teamwork, increased risk-taking, and more innovative thinking when the fear of looking dumb is removed. It’s a win-win by any standard of measure.