Dark insecurities forever whisper in our ear. Fear of exposure to vulnerability climbs in the driver’s seat of our mind: “Shields up! Cloaking device activated!” All of a sudden, the people we need to connect with the most are presented with an image — not of us, but of the mask we hide behind. Once this process is set in motion, performance replaces relationship and keeping up the appearance takes precedence over making a connection.
But there is a way out; this exhausting cycle can be broken. It’s hard, and it’s scary, but it gets easier with each iteration. It all begins with uttering three little words in those moments when the Fear is screaming to say anything else. Freedom lies just on the other side. Before you attempt to say them in person, try simply saying them to yourself in the mirror. Repeat after me:
So many people — whether leading or not — are quietly terrified of admitting what soon is apparent to anyone paying attention anyway:
- I don’t know the answer.
- I don’t know what you’re talking about.
- I don’t know how to fix that.
- I don’t know how to handle this.
- I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.
- I don’t know what the “market” will do next.
- I don’t know what is wrong.
- I don’t know how that happened.
- I don’t know …
For over a decade as a prosecutor, I counseled more witnesses and victims in preparation for court than I can possibly count. In every single case, they heard the same thing from me:
Your job is to answer the questions truthfully, and if the truth is you don’t know the answer or don’t remember the information, then just say that. Even if the defense attorney comes back with a question like “That’s a pretty important detail. Shouldn’t you know that?” the only response is the honest: “Yes, I probably should. But I don’t.” There’s nothing more an attorney can do with an honest “I don’t know.” It’s a dead-end. Where witnesses get into trouble is when they are afraid to look like they don’t know an answer they feel they should know, so they start to guess. When witnesses start making guesses, then a whole world of fun opens up for cross-examining attorneys.
The same is no less true for Leaders of any level. Sincerely admitting to not knowing signals to your people a vulnerability, which is the key to building real trust. It puts your focus on the problem at hand and not on maintaining an image of gap-less competence. It lets your people know you are an actual person — an underrated image to keep cultivated because it’s Reality. It empowers them to help you. Most importantly, it models for your people how to do the same — admit when they don’t have the answer — because nothing is worse for an organization than a culture that hides truths like that.
Go on. Drop the mask.