I once had an interview where I was very casually asked if I knew how to use a piece of software. The short answer is that I didn’t know. The long answer is that I didn’t know because, in my previous experiences, this function was always handled by a separate department. I remember the anxiety I felt at the seemingly innocent question. It wasn’t the best response I’ve ever given in an interview but I managed to respond with a “nope”. Of all the interviews I've done, that question has stayed with me most to this day.
No one likes to look foolish or appear incompetent. Avoidance of those feelings run even deeper in the workplace and mostly for good reason. We were all hired, and are being paid, for our knowledge and capabilities. Therefore, whenever it seems like we should know something that we don’t, it can cause insecurities to start popping up that we need to be prepared to deal with in an authentic and healthy way.
I say authentic because I know it is popular advice to “fake it until you make it”; and there is a benefit in that especially where Impostor Syndrome is a play. However, being honest and upfront about your capabilities can be even more beneficial.
So, what are the Benefits of Quickly Acknowledging What You Don’t Know, Own It and Capitalize on It?
1. Builds Trust and Accountability
Communicating what you do not know, especially in a situation where it seems you’re expected to know it builds Trust. It shows that you are willing, to be honest even when it doesn’t look good for you.
It also builds accountability. If you’ve publicly expressed a gap in your capabilities and it is relevant, you’ve formed a contract with whoever is aware that it is a gap you intend to close. The best motivator to complete any goal is having a community that is invested in you being successful.
2. Establishes Appropriate Expectations
Another quick note on “faking it until you make it” is that it can be massively stressful. It creeps into your mind and have you second-guessing yourself. It also adds pressure to close the capability gap as quickly as possible.
However, once you’ve communicated what you can do, you’ve set the expectation. The next step could include how to close this gap or a revelation that it was only a nice to have in the first place. Either way, you would have removed an unnecessary source of pressure by demonstrating transparency about your capabilities.
3. Show Learning Agility
Repeat after me, “I don’t know, but I can find out.” There is no expectation that you will be an expert in every aspect of your job. There is no expectation that there are parts of your job that you may not know very much about. There is an expectation, however, that you will be able to learn a component of your role that you may have not previously been familiar with.
Whenever you encounter this scenario, treat it as an opportunity. This is an area where you can show initiative. It is even better when you can define and execute your learning plan. Ensure that you have clearly defined expectations of what your gaps are, define the timeline you’ll adhere to and demonstrate said capability once you’ve acquired it. Learning agility is a key demonstrator of competence, don’t rob yourself of the opportunity to show you possess it.
4. Learn From the Master
Once it’s established that you have a gap and that you are in learning mode, some key opportunities become available to you. Firstly, you can learn from the Master! Who is the epitome of the capability you are looking to learn? Whoever that is in your organization you can openly question, shadow and bounce ideas off of them.
Though not the intent, this will also allow you to broaden your network authentically and naturally. You can couple this approach with leveraging online and classroom training or industry-based books and literature.
5. It’s Usually Not That Serious
Remember that story I told earlier about the heart-pounding, nail-biting, end-all-be-all of interview questions? Well turns out it wasn't that serious. My core competencies were the priority and that software was easy enough to learn and use.
What I’m saying is, that one thing that you feel terrified about not knowing, that might lead you to feel like you’re an ‘imposter’, is probably not that serious to your manager and peers. It’s far more important to show accountability, competence and learning agility. So, continue to put your best foot forward and pay attention to the story you are telling ourself in these moments.