When is it ok to say 'I don't know' in managing change

In times of change it is not a bad thing for a manager to say ‘I don’t know’.

Change – an act or process through which something becomes different. Make or become different.

For something to become different it has to change, in becoming different it often will represent the ‘unknown’.

You don’t have to have all the answers when managing change

The challenge in leading and managing teams through change is working to confront and be comfortable with uncertainty. That often means showing ‘weakness’ by admitting you, as manager and leader, don’t know all the answers.

This realisation is hard for managers and team members alike to come to grips with.

Often managers take comfort from being ‘in charge’, having all the answers and being able to lead from the front. This isn’t possible in times of change. Managers must learn a new set of skills to support and encourage team members as they work to implement change.

Team members are equally reassured and comforted when they know their Manager has the ‘answers’. This is especially true in times of uncertainty. No one wants to stand out by making mistakes, or taking unnecessary risks, better to play it safe and ask for directions.

Are you a ‘fool or wise manager’

Shakespeare put it best when he said

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

this could well be a new mantra for managers and leaders involved in change.

If you start from a position of knowing and acknowledging you ‘don’t know ‘you will be forced to develop an approach which supports exploration and shared problem solving with your team.

ChangeIt is better to work together as a team to explore the options and develop solutions that work in your environment than suggest a predetermined ‘solution’ conceived by managers. Jumping in to suggest solutions and dictate outcomes doesn’t assist in the change process as it often will shut down creativity and alternative solutions.

To do this you need to model a level of comfort with ambiguity and adopt alternative strategies that foster joint exploration and creative solutions to problem solving.

Easy to say with deadlines and priorities piling up! You and your co-workers are looking for quick fixes and reassurance that they are going about things the right way. In this scenario what is wrong with trying to fix the problem by offering a solution.

Instead of leading by providing solutions try leading by encouraging joint problem solving.  So instead of saying “I don’t know” you might try

  • “What options do we have”
  • “Where might we find a solution”
  • “How might we re-think our practice to meet this new …”

One author suggests using the Toyota approach of asking the ‘5 WHYS’. THis approach harks back to the approach of children but has some appeal as it seeks to dig deeper into the source of the problem to identify potential solutions.


problem shared problem halved; change