Looking For a Quick Solution? It’s OK Sometimes to Say “I Don’t Know”

Nov 14, 2013

I read an article the other day that advised employees to never tell a boss, “I don’t know.” Instead, the authors advised, the right response is: “I’ll find out right away.”

Well, any regular reader of career advice (I’ll plead guilty) knows that there is a lot of bad advice out there. A lot.

And while I wouldn’t consider the above to be the worst of the bunch, it’s close.

What’s so objectionable about saying “I don’t know,” if in fact, you don’t know?

Not every problem has a quick solution

I believe the authors are making the point that a good employee is always willing to find a solution to a problem. That’s great, and I’m totally on board with it.

But my issue with this advice is that it reinforces the stereotype that the only good employee is the fast-talking, quick-to-say-yes employee, which frankly, I find offensive. There really is more than one way to be.

I know I’m not the only person who’d rather pause and say (depending on the specific query, of course), “I don’t know. Let me think about that.” Or “I don’t know. I’ll have to check that out.” Or, “I don’t know. I’ll see what I can do.”

The writers’ advice presupposes that every problem has a quick solution, but that’s not true. The advice also assumes that acting is always better than thinking, which also isn’t true. But really, sometimes it’s best to just ponder something for a damn minute.

Come on — what kind of a rotten boss can’t wait a few lousy seconds for an employee to think before giving a response to a credible question? (Perhaps one whose favorite expression is “chop chop”?) And what kind of boss requires that her employee be omniscient? That’s stupid.

Having a moment of doubt

Sometimes the proper answer is “I don’t know.” That may not be the complete answer or the final answer, but to suggest that it’s never a good answer is silly.

With all the talk everywhere about being “authentic” and “transparent” and “doing you” and all that jazz, I find it amazing that employees are still being told that it’s always wrong to express a moment of doubt.

Instead, it’s supposedly better to adopt the false mask of having a perpetual, peppy “can do” attitude (“I’ll find out right away. Right away, boss!) because … because what exactly? Heck if I know. The manager might have to provide guidance? The manager might be forced into conversation with the employee about potential work challenges? What?

Honestly, I think this advice is insulting to both managers and their employees.

Can you answer if you don’t know the answer?

And lest you think these authors are the only ones spouting this nonsense, check out 10 Things You Should Never Say at Work as well as Preparing to Answer Questions You Don’t Know the Answer To, which delivers this gem: “Never say ‘I don’t know’ right away; instead, rephrase the question until you are sure what they are asking.”


Interviewer: So tell me Candidate, what do you see as the biggest challenge to HR in the coming decade?

Candidate: What do I see as the biggest challenge to HR in the coming decade?

Interviewer: Yes.

Candidate: Let’s see … If someone were to ask me what I see as the biggest challenge to HR in the coming decade, I’d say …

Interviewer: Yes?

Candidate: Hmmm … did you say ‘THE biggest challenge?’”

Interviewer: Yes.

Yes, no one knows everything

Well, thankfully not all the advice on this topic is bad. In Three Little Words to Never Say in an Interview, Heidi Golledge, CEO of CyberCoders and jobs website CareerBliss, is quoted thusly: “Saying ‘I don’t know’ at the right time could give you an edge and show off a rare trait.”


No one knows everything, and managers shouldn’t expect that their employees do. It’s all fine and good to want employees to solve problems (presumably that’s why they were hired in the first place), but they shouldn’t have to pretend to be more than human in the process.


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