When was the last time somebody in your business admitted ‘I don’t understand’?

Updated: Aug 6, 2019

An attempted revival of the most valuable and underused statement in business

At first I thought that I’d identified an issue isolated to big corporate businesses, however with more and more conversations and observations within businesses of all sizes, it seems the issue is not isolated. People are avoiding using one of the most valuable statements in the human language; I don’t understand.  

The moment a person doesn’t admit that they don’t understand something, they catalyse a chain of events which ultimately results in poor delivery to a customer, colleague or leadership.

This is a genuine crisis to business. When employees are nodding through an important meeting or briefing whilst not understanding the ask of them, expect inefficiency, miscommunication and consequent unhappy customers, disengaged employees and poor business performance.

Fixing this issue should be a top priority to businesses who cannot remember the last time one of their team used the statement. Humility is one of the most fundamental behaviours necessary for personal and business growth and if not exercised, it's time to find out why.

Why are people so afraid to say ‘I don’t understand’?

There are two primary reasons for this issue:

  1. The employer not creating a safe environment for people to speak freely

  2. The employee not demonstrating the confidence required to speak up 

Both parties can take some responsibility here. I’ve worked with many businesses who don’t create a ‘safe’ environment for employees to speak up, however I’ve also run departments with a focus on creating a culture of openness and support, and there were still people who didn’t feel they could speak up. 

The results are the same either way; inefficiency, unhappy customers, disengaged employees, poor performance. 

The irony is that the statement ‘I don’t understand’, when said unashamedly, sounds impressively confident. In fact when I use it (and I do freely) I find an interesting energy shift in the room which exposes just how many people are avoiding such humility. 

“The irony is that the statement ‘I don’t understand’, when said unashamedly, sounds impressively confident.”

The statement 'I don't understand' is one of the most important statements for my work, and has been fundamental to my career success. Understanding a client’s need is imperative to my ability to deliver to them. I will comfortably say that I don’t understand as many times as it takes to get to crux of client need. The sad fact is that often this behaviour differentiates me from many of my peers; humility is not high on the agenda for many consultants. My intention is to change this behaviour.

How do we change this behaviour for good?

The answer to this question is two-fold, one answer for employers, and one for employees. 

Employers; aside from determining the vision and direction for the business, the primary responsibility for business leadership is to create an environment which attracts, develops, engages and retains the best people for the business. 

A strong business environment is one that allows for psychological safety, which means that employees feel ‘safe’ sharing their thoughts, their ideas, their concerns. Businesses who succeed in creating a psychologically safe environment encourage humiility, the most underrated and fundamental factor for growth (both personal and business). 

When humility is encouraged, conversations with colleagues, clients and leadership are refreshingly open and honest, allowing issues to be raised and tackled proactively, understanding to be reached by all in the first instance, and outcomes to be achieved more quickly. 

Taking the time to properly brief a team at the outset, encourage questions and check for understanding, makes for significant efficiencies later on.

For a more prescribed method of creating strong team environments, read ‘How to create exceptional team performance from a group of individuals’.

Employees: as humans we are life-long learners, which means at no point will we, or should we know everything. Irrespective of education, experience, age, gender or ambitions, demonstrating humility speaks volumes about character. 

Freely seeking a better understanding of a project, system or process in the early stages  will result in better and faster outcomes for you and for the business. Employers who do not respond positively to such humility are not good employers, and won’t succeed in the long-term. It may be best to consider this now. I guarantee that in the majority of circumstances, making this statement will relieve the majority of the people in the room.

My plea to all is to use and celebrate the statement ‘I don’t understand’, recognising it as fundamental to personal and business growth. 

I am fascinated with this topic and would love to hear your thoughts; has this blog inspired you to do anything differently? How do you rate the environment in your business? Comment or email me here with your thoughts as I’d love to share some case studies in a future blog. 

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