If You Can’t Be Confident in Your Knowledge, Be Confident In Your Ignorance

Posted 02.06.2015

confidence1The title of this post comes from a comment made at a global leadership team meeting I was facilitating earlier this year. The purpose of the meeting was to review 360 degree feedback on the team and its members. In the format we were using, each team member had around 15 minutes in the spotlight to share what they learned from their feedback, what they are working on to take their game to the next level and to get advice from their colleagues on simple things they could do that would make a difference.

It was interesting that in a very accomplished group of people, more than a few were working on issues that, in one way or another, related to showing up with confidence as a leader. Given how hard it is to lead and all of the twists, turns, ups and downs that leaders face, it’s not really surprising that confidence can come up as an issue. When you add in all of the information, projects and decisions that leaders (and just about any professional for that matter) need to keep up with, it’s easy to see why feeling confident and projecting confidence is such a common opportunity.

It’s harder than hell to keep up with everything. When you know in your gut that you’re not keeping up, your confidence can suffer.

We were talking about that dynamic in the meeting when one of the executives shared a maxim she started practicing years ago that has served her well ever since: “If you can’t be confident in your knowledge, be confident in your ignorance.”

When she dropped that line on us, the conversation stopped for a moment while everyone let it sink in. We asked her to tell us more about what she had just said. She told us that she realized years ago that she couldn’t know everything and instead of trying to fake her way through situations where she didn’t know things that other people maybe expected her to know, she just started to confidently acknowledging her ignorance on a topic.

Don’t get me wrong, she didn’t play stupid and she’s clearly not. Rather, I’d say she’s one of the more intelligent people I’ve met lately. She’s smart enough and confident enough to acknowledge when she doesn’t have the facts at her fingertips, doesn’t understand the point that’s being made or needs more information to make a decision or offer an informed opinion. That strikes me as a pretty great strategy for staying sane, effective and respected in a world where it’s impossible for anyone to stay on top of everything that’s going on.

It’s worked for her. She shared that in the years since she’s started being confident in her ignorance, she’s only had one boss jump down her throat. It turned out that he didn’t last long in his role anyway. Everyone else has thanked her for being straight up. Many have told her they admired her honesty.

So, food for thought. Where and when do you need to be confident in your ignorance?