I’ve been thinking about this ever since someone sent me Lyza’s beautiful article Never Heard of It.
Not long before, I had started noticing a habit I had, a tendency to nod or make vague assentive noises when people around me talked about things I’d never heard of.
When I did this, my motivation wasn’t to claim knowledge I didn’t have as much as to deflect a need for outright admission of ignorance. I’d let the moment glide past and later scamper off to furtively study up.
I recognized this in myself, this fear of looking like I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I didn’t love it. At the same time, there was so much to keep on top of … that to be entirely informed about all of these things wasn’t feasible either, no matter the level of effort.
I decided that I wanted to come to terms with not knowing everything, to be able to say never heard of it and not feel panicky.
Her fear, probably one we all share at some level, wasn’t that she didn’t want to look like she didn’t know what she was doing but maybe that she actually didn’t know what she was doing.
And no one wants to draw attention to themselves by asking a ‘stupid’ question. Or pointing out they don’t know.
In group settings, this has lead to what psychologists call ‘pluralistic ignorance,’a psychological state characterized by the belief that one’s private thoughts are different from those of others. This causes huge problems in organizations.
Consider an example. You’re in a large meeting with the senior management of your organization to discuss an initiative that spans across the organization and involves everyone in the room. You hear words come out, someone may even ask you, do you follow? And yes, of course you follow — you don’t want to be the only person in the room without a clue.
“To admit to ignorance, uncertainty or ambivalence” writes Tim Kreider, “is to cede your place on the masthead, your slot on the program, and allow all the coveted eyeballs to turn instead to the next hack who’s more than happy to sell them all the answers.” No wonder we have such a hard time owning up when we don’t know something.
So you walk out of the room wondering what you just agreed to do. You have no idea. Your stress goes up, you run around asking others, and quickly discover they are just as confused as you are.
This project isn’t doomed, it’s just a lot more work now than it needs to be. You either guess at what was intended and take a leap of faith or you spend an endless amount of time and organizational energy chasing this down after the meeting.
Information is coming to us with greater velocity and magnitude. “I don’t know” might be the most powerful admission you can make in the internet era.