This is a simple concept, but practicing it on a regular basis can present an array of challenges. Few things can make you look more foolish, or unprepared, or affect your work performance like pretending you know something that you don’t. So why do most of us do it almost everyday?
Let’s discuss the concept, then I’ll address the two main obstacles I see to putting it into practice regularly. First and foremost, let’s agree that there are things you should know (at work, in your relationships, etc.), and it is your responsibility to have a clear understanding and working knowledge of them. If you don’t, you need to do the research–ask the questions. This is something you cannot fake.
The second category is things you probably need more clarification on, and this is where most people seem to struggle. I’ll use the example of your boss giving you instructions for a project you’ve been assigned to demonstrate this idea. Whether you fall into the group who is anxious about interacting with their boss and simply want to cut that time as short as possible, or you eagerly want to convey to your boss that they have chosen the “right man for the job,” or your boss simply didn’t communicate the instructions effectively, chances are when you begin the project you will realize that you have some questions. This is the point where most of the fakery and assumptions come in, yet we plod through it wasting our time and talents to present something that doesn’t meet the organization’s objectives.
Have you heard the adage, “When you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME?” Well that’s exactly what happens in this stage. One way to combat the inclination to assume, and to gain clarity in this situation is to immediately plan the project. Begin with what you understand to be its objective, then map out the different ways you can think of to achieve that objective. Make sure that you have mapped out your steps completely, and provide alternative steps in case your understanding of the objective was incorrect. Time is of the essence with this step as procrastination can be the main obstacle to not getting a clearer understanding of the project. Once you have done that, ask your boss if they have a few minutes to sit down to go over your plan (preferably that same day). More often than not they will be happy to talk about it, and will appreciate your diligence. As you go over your plan, ask your boss, “What are we trying to accomplish with this? What questions are we trying to answer? What issue are we trying to resolve?” Those questions will also help them view the project in a way that will then be easier to communicate to you. Now you will have the direction you require to manage your time and resources more effectively and efficiently, and you will also get a valuable glimpse of the organization’s bigger picture.
The third category encompasses all the things you probably shouldn’t have known, or had no way of knowing. So many times I have felt anxiety over not knowing someone’s name whom I’ve never been introduced to. I’ll look for clandestine ways to find out their name, when the easiest way would be to just introduce myself. These are the things we need to simply let ourselves off the hook for. The anxiety and stress that accompany these situations is a horrible trade-off for the illusion that we know something we don’t, and admitting when we don’t know something opens our mind to the possibility of learning.
The obstacles to admitting when you don’t know something are probably pretty clear at this point. The first obstacle, as we saw in the project example above is procrastination. We allow the question window close by pretending we know what we are doing, and when we are struggling to complete the project before the deadline the time for clarification has passed. The second, and perhaps most difficult obstacle to overcome is our ego. We tend to struggle with the idea of showing people that we don’t understand something; we fear that they will think we are stupid or not worthy of their attention, love and faith. Ironically, if we open ourselves up by asking questions, seeking clarification, and ultimately receiving the direction we need, we will be rewarded with more involved, deeper relationships both at home and work.
I welcome your comments and discussion.