Cultivating Candor

If you can get past the senseless stigma that surrounds saying three little words, you can achieve new heights in innovation and productivity.

By Anthony G. Noel


“I don’t know.” For too many owners, managers and frontline employees in far too many businesses of every stripe, uttering these three words is nothing less than death.

The reasons can almost seem defensible. After all, isn’t the owner supposed to know everything? If he admits that he doesn’t, how can he maintain the respect and dedication of his managers and employees?

And managers, well, they get it both ways. On one side is the owner, who hired the manager to do a specific job. What kind of faith will any owner have in the ability of a manager who admits (gasp!) he doesn’t know something? On top of that, managers have those in their charge to think about. “If I admit to an underling that I don’t know something, well, geez! How can I justify my position of superiority?”

    “I don’t know” is a potent tool in raising the general knowledge of an organization because people who are set free to explore the limits of their knowledge tend to do just that.  

Then, of course, on the other side there are the employees themselves (you know, the ones who actually make it all happen). One slip of the lip with a poorly timed admission of ignorance, a manager might reason, and there goes that raise or, worse, promotion.

In the kinder, gentler, touchy-feely world of management (the one that has prompted everything from quality circles to mission statements), it may seem hard to believe such stigmas still survive. But they do and, looked at within the contexts just described, they almost make sense.


And they make a little more sense when a whole separate stigma (I call it the “Information Age Stigma”) is taken into account. That rationale goes like this: If, as we’ve all heard, we have at our fingertips more information today than at any time in history, how can anyone not know something, if they really want to?

Well, it is time to explode these and other mythic justifications to avoid saying, “I don’t know” and instead look at the benefits that happen when we free ourselves to admit our ignorance.

Those benefits are easy to imagine, really. But nonetheless, many of us never get past the imagining stage to experience the profound impact on innovation and productivity yielded by saying, “I don’t know.”

One benefit, maybe the biggest, is the general effect on candor throughout the organization. Once people start admitting they don’t know, they discover there is really nothing to hide. Freed of all their long-held notions of near-deadly consequences if their mortality is exposed, they experience the comfort, the outright glee, that comes with nipping uncertainty in the bud — as compared to the stress that accrues by letting the unknown accumulate, while pretending it’s not an issue.

“I don’t know” is a potent tool in raising the general knowledge of an organization because people who are set free to explore the limits of their knowledge tend to do just that. Knowing that those long-feared consequences do not exist, they soon find themselves looking for things they don’t know and taking action to learn them. When everyone in the organization is doing this, the knowledge base of the organization and the abilities of everyone in it grow exponentially.

Sounds like the true meaning of the word “team,” doesn’t it?

There are three other words which hold similar power and which have been similarly stigmatized, almost into oblivion. They are far more personal than “I don’t know,” despite their shared first-person status. They are, or at least, seem to be more dangerous.

So seldom heard are these supposedly embarrassing words that they should be placed on the endangered “specious” list. (“Specious” [SPEE-shus] is the description given to something that appears to be correct, but in fact is not.)

What are these purportedly lethal, never-heard words?

“I was wrong.”

Specious indeed: “I thought this was right, but as it turns out, well...”

(Of course, it likely turned out that way because the same person, much earlier in the process, was afraid to say, “I don’t know.”)

    I once worked for a guy who regularly said, “Hey, all my pencils have erasers on the end.” It was his way of admitting that he made mistakes.  

If admitting to not knowing something is near-deadly in many organizations, admitting guilt or flat-out ineptitude equates with death by firing squad.

Yet like “I don’t know,” the phrase “I was wrong” has powers which can only be fully appreciated by those brave enough to use it.

I once worked for a guy who regularly said, “Hey, all my pencils have erasers on the end.” It was his way of admitting that he made mistakes.

The fact is, we all do. But we can significantly decrease mistakes, improve efficiency, increase productivity and even engender innovation by embracing our human frailties, rather than pretending they don’t exist.

It doesn’t matter if you are the owner, manager or a frontline employee: If you resolve to be honest about what you do and don’t know, and decide to admit it when you are wrong, you will see profound changes immediately.

You will understand the power that comes from curiosity, as opposed to the stress that assumptions create.

You will experience the freedom that admitting mistakes allows, instead of the pangs of discomfort you felt in the past, knowing you have fouled up but refusing to admit it.

And you will take it upon yourself to broaden your knowledge and to act based on what you know will work or, in cases where you are blazing new trails, what has at least an even-money chance of working.

Best of all, you will set an example that others will notice and will begin to follow. It may not happen overnight, but each time someone (1) sees you admitting you don’t know something or that you were wrong, and (2) notices the next day that your head is still attached to your shoulders, then (3) realizes that your productivity always seems to be improving, you will begin to change old beliefs.

In the process, you will help lead your company to the very kind of success that it was previously thought could only be achieved if everyone appeared invincible.

No one is. And the sooner we admit it by cultivating and practicing candor, the sooner we can begin to do great work.

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