It’s Okay Not to Know

We have an affliction running rampant in the workplace.
It is a misfortune called MKIA: Must Know It All.

MKIA is an assumption we burden others with; a symptom of our own self-righteous indignation. Once someone is in a position of any authority or expertise, we assume they are supposed to know absolutely everything there is to know ”“ everything and anything that could possibly be associated with their position.

Expert by Pete Prodoehl on Flickr

When we stop to think about it, MKIA is really absurd. Yet we lay this unfair and unreasonable expectation on others constantly. Why?

“Well, he works there for crying out loud, he should have known.”

“She’s the boss; she should know: Why should I be the one to tell her?”

“Isn’t it his job to know these things, or at least know how to find out?”

“Why is she the one in charge if she can’t even answer my questions?”

“Why is this taking so long, you’d think they’d know what they’re doing by now!”

Let’s think about this a bit more.

Do we expect people to have fully arrived once they land a job? Do we really expect everyone to be an expert, completely qualified and experienced, and not needing to learn a single thing more? Of course not.

In fact, don’t you get even more upset when someone says they know something and they intentionally misrepresent themselves or try to fake it?

It’s okay not to know everything.

However it’s not okay to stop there. We’re expected to do something about our not knowing when it becomes important that we learn, and find out.

“I don’t know” is a Beginning, not an Ending

Managers, this is where you can make such a profound difference in both the workplace atmosphere and in the customer service you offer. Banish the MKIA affliction once and for all.

Here are 5 tips to start with. I don’t know, there may be more ways ”“ I’m still learning too ”“ but I do know these represent a great beginning!

1. Make it crystal clear that it’s okay not to know everything. Make ‘not knowing’ safe and be sure it is never embarrassing. Thank people for admitting to what they don’t know, explaining why it is the information YOU need to know so you can help, and get things to improve.

2. Model your own vulnerability in being able to say, “I don’t know, but I aim to learn, and find out!” Work on your approachability, and improve your listening skills. Self-protective walls will come down and people will openly tell you what they need to learn too.

3. Evangelize and celebrate continual learning. Don’t just say learning is valued, prove it. Demonstrate how learning starts with ‘not knowing’ as a highly desirable open-mindedness, a potential growth capacity eagerly waiting to be explored. Fill the workplace with easily accessible resources (remember that people are resources too).

4. Equip people with both the armor and aloha of professionalism. Work on this critical knowledge: What is it to be an expert in one’s position, and how does that happen? How do you handle yourself, and how do you handle the customer when you’re at the in-between place of still learning your expertise?

5. Get rid of ALL assumptions and seek clarity and intention. Mentor a workplace culture where people are constantly asking clarifying questions to be sure they are working on the right thing at the right time, and for the right reason. Graduate to “Why?” questions which will herald in reinvention and fresh ideas.

Go ahead, you can say it: “I don’t know.”

Now we’re getting somewhere!

Let’s talk story; I’d love to hear from you.

My mana‘o [The Backstory of this posting]
Each Thursday I write a management posting for Say “Alaka‘i” at The Honolulu Advertiser. The edition here on Talking Story is revised with internally directed links, and I can take a few more editorial liberties. One person — managers — will do both things; manage and lead. They are action verbs! Exploring them as separate postings helps us dig deep and get to the good stuff.

Photo Credits: “Expert” and “Expert (Outtakes)” by Pete Prodoehl on Flickr


  1. says

    Saying “I don’t know” saves a whole lot of time and effort, rather than trying to bumble through and working at cross purposes.

    I used to be worried to say those words, especially if I was the only one in the group who didn’t “know” but, now, I feel that they lead to “tell me more.” And in the learning more, one can work, behave, etc. with less anxieties, mistakes, and failures.

    • Rosa Say says

      You give us a great tip Marisa. There are tons of situations where we can say “I don’t know” silently as our own self-talk, but then speak up saying, “Tell me more, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.” Who doesn’t love the invitation to talk from an eager listener?

  2. says

    My hard current lesson while writing is that not only do I not know, I can’t find out just through research. I have to roll up my sleeves and dig in to find out what the questions really are and what opportunities are available on the ground.
    .-= Ann Marie ´s last blog ..Go in Swinging =-.

    • Rosa Say says

      Welcome to Talking Story Ann Marie!
      Your sharing gives me a very warm memory of one of my earliest mentors, Sigi Brauer: I sat in on an interview he was doing with an MBA student applying for an internship at our hotel, and Sigi told him that he’d now discover the “second kind of research.” He explained that asking other people is usually the quickest, and most timely way to discover something: If they don’t have an answer, ask them where to go next, or who else to ask. He was explaining our culture there – that we were expected to speak up instead of keeping too much inside where it couldn’t be shared, but the research bit stayed with me as a lasting impression (This was about 30 years ago!)
      Brings this oldie but goodie to mind to: Embracing What I Learned From My Friends (This stuff is good!)

      As far as writing goes, I think we can add a 3rd type of research too: That exploration of what we can come up with in our imagination, something I am learning more about right now with fiction. In my own non-fiction writing, I know I can use way more academic and/or web-based research: Gotta love what we can discover on the web now!

  3. says

    This post rings true for me.

    The clients we struggle the most to help have MKIA so much so that we often refer to them as “expert cultures”.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Keep creating…stories worth repeating,

    • Rosa Say says

      Aloha Mike, so good to hear from you again!

      Expertise is supposed to be a good thing, but it sure can get in the way sometimes. I would love to hear more on how you do eventually get beyond that “struggle” you’d mentioned: Another strategy beyond the 5 tips I offer here?

    • says

      My friend calls this “the cult of the expert.” It seems like a lot of people afflicted want to show their worth–they’re used to being validated for their knowledge. So one must be sure to truly reward the quest, validate the people who ask questions, not just state answers.
      .-= Ann Marie ´s last blog ..Go in Swinging =-.

      • Rosa Say says

        Great observations Ann Marie, thank you for chipping them into this conversation. I think it is human nature that we all want to be validated by others, however getting validated for our knowledge (could we call it credibility? Just read a related article on this by Trust Agent author Julien Smith) is just a small part of the picture. I’m thinking about that trio of talent, skills, and knowledge we talk about as the inputs of strengths management, and how we earn reputation versus credibility.

  4. Rosa Say says

    It is interesting to me how this conversation is evolving. I wrote this post thinking about how we will impose an unfair expectation on others, and all of you have added the self-management and self-leadership considerations about better cultivating our own expertise. I was not thinking about how being an expert can actually be an affliction leading to a dysfunctional culture, but all of you are right – it can happen.

    • says

      I was going to say that I think we not only impose something unfair on others, we first impose it upon ourselves. I think there’s an insecurity at play here (and I speak from experience) that transfers from within ourselves to others around us.

      It’s even harder for us independent business consultant folks to tame (or could just be me, I don’t know…hey, that feels nice). We’re supposed to be the ones with all the answers. Every time I find myself thinking that, I reach for my Peter Block and remind myself that no one has a monopoly on solutions and it’s the clients themselves who often have good answers, too. The consultant becomes the coach, beckoning the solutions out.

      • Rosa Say says

        Such insights Chris! If we consider that leaders will model the behavior others emulate, we certainly do not want to impose this upon ourselves and feed into any vicious cycle of insecurity!

        I have only recently read Peter Block’s The Answer to How is Yes Chris, and he is a good mentor to have!

        Just this morning I read another article closely related to this discussion. It was written by Mary Jo Asmus on The Art of Inquiry, and as I commented for her, I really liked this part of it:

        “As a leader, you (believe you) live in a world of answers. You (think) you’ve been paid to have answers, to impart knowledge, to tell. Your employees may have developed a habit of counting on you to tell them your answers. Yet they know the answers themselves, in their own way. They are wise too. The greatest knowledge of all can be within the world beneath what is explicitly known, especially when it comes to unlocking the potential in your employees. This is the place where the answers are elusive to you and where your employees hold fast to their own wisdom. Their best answers are locked inside. These answers are the ones that will help them to grow and develop in the way that works best for them, for you, and will provide creative solutions for your organization.”