Can You Say “I Don’t Know”?

A new book, “I don’t know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t)” by Leah Hager Cohen covers the difficulty many have of saying “I don’t know.” The ability to say “I don’t know” is vital to performance improvement; it is difficult to improve if we stick to only those things that we already know, that we think understand, and with which we are comfortable. Yet if we stick to what we “already know” then most likely we will stick with a variation of what we already do, a certain recipe for little or no improvement. Improvement comes from acknowledging that we what “know” is subject to, even ripe for, reconsideration.

The mode of leadership that fosters performance improvement is the one that emphasizes asking better questions rather than trying to provide answers.

Cohen writes:

From an early age, children learn that knowledge is power and a lack of it sets you back, Ms. Cohen says. They’re afraid they’ll get the wrong answer and won’t earn that sought after praise. As adults, a deep desire to impress and best position ourselves for approval can mean stifling our doubts and faking it to seem like we know what’s going on.

During a winter storm in 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the Potomac River near the Washington National Airport because the co-pilot did not know the plane was in no shape to take off and didn’t want to confess that to his captain. The captain seemed sure the plane was ready to go — de-iced and showing the right readings on the flight instruments.

“That don’t seem right, does it? Ah, that’s not right,” the co-pilot can be heard saying on the black box recording.

“Yes it is, there’s 80,” the captain replies.

“Naw, I don’t think that’s right,” the co-pilot presses, before saying, “Ah, maybe it is.”

Only four of the 74 passengers and a single flight attendant survived. Four motorists also died when the plane hit a bridge on its way down.

That feeling of knowing — that desire or need to know — depends on many factors, he says: a person’s personality, biological makeup and socialization. (If you were raised by know-it-all parents who rewarded the right answer, then guess what brings validation later in life?)

And it may be that it could become an addiction, he says, the know-it-all’s high. The same area of the brain lights up when a person takes drugs or gambles — the same neurons in the reward pathway of the brain shoot dopamine into the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and nucleus accumbens, he says. The dopamine heightens the feeling of pleasure.

Other experts see this fear of not knowing as less biological and more shaped by the world in which we live.

Our Western culture is built to view unknowns, uncertainty and ignorance negatively, says Michael Smithson, a psychology professor at Australian National University.

“This blind spot has its costs,” says the professor, who researches ignorance and uncertainty. “For instance, thanks to the overwhelming valuation of knowledge and under-valuation of knowing what we don’t know, I find that the most difficult thing to teach students who are just starting to do research is how to clearly state what their research questions are — i.e., getting them to describe what they don’t know.”

Saying “I don’t know” requires a special kind of self-confidence, Ms. Cohen argues — a confidence Socrates might have been getting at when he said ‘Admitting one’s ignorance is the beginning of wisdom,’ ” or French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau when he said “I do not know” is a phrase which becomes us.”

It’s also claiming a sort of bravery.

“I think maybe one of the most immediate benefits is we let go of all the tension and energy that we’ve been putting into faking it, which is strongly associated with shame,” she says. “Then we open ourselves up to learning — to deeper, better, truer understanding. While we are standing there rigidly maintaining a posture of pretending to know, we’re not opening ourselves up to growing.”



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