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Management Rules That Make No Sense #5: The Power Of Saying “I Don’t Know”

March 28, 2014

Thank you for calling WordPerfect Office Support. Is there anything else I can help you with today?

Yeah, I had just one more question. . .

My customer proceeded to ask me a question that I had no idea how to answer. Now what?

While working for Microsoft I had an opportunity to interview many different people. I was an expert on the communication process between a Microsoft Outlook client and a Microsoft Exchange server. Often my portion of the interview would start out like this:

Can you explain what happens when you click SEND on an email message that is addressed to someone at another company?

Well, the Outlook client sends the email to the Exchange server. . .

Yeah, how does it do that?

The Outlook client machine makes a network connection to the Exchange server and then transfers the message. . .

How does it know where to locate the Exchange server?

Well, it makes an DNS query. . .

How does it know what name to query?

Eventually, we would reach the level of the person’s understanding. There was no way the candidate knew more about Outlook to Exchange communication than I did. If they understood DNS, I would drill down into the communication protocol used when talking to Exchange (RPC.) If they knew about RPC, I would drill down into the encapsulated protocol (MIME.) If they knew about MIME, I would drill down into the RPC call number (2). If they knew that, I’d drill down into what offset in the file of an RPC call to the End Point contained the IP address of the Exchange server.

The point was only partly to figure out how much they knew about Exchange. Really, we could teach them the technical details. The main point was to get the candidate to the point where they DIDN’T know the answer. What did they do at that point? Did they guess? Did they bluff?

The correct answer was for them to get to the point of saying, “I don’t know.” In other words, were they willing to be honest?

It was amazing to watch. The candidates who bluffed, or made up an answer never realized that it was at that moment that they failed the interview. If you were willing to lie about something that simple, how did we know they wouldn’t lie when it was more important?

It’s very hard, especially for technical people to say, “I don’t know.” But, ironically, it’s amazingly liberating. If you are willing to say “I don’t know” it actually builds credibility. People realize that they can trust your statements since they know you would admit it if you were wrong.

I learned this while on the phones supporting WordPerfect Office. In the original example above, when I was asked this question I didn’t know the answer to, I started to panic a little bit. I was one of the senior engineers. I didn’t have anyone I could go ask. No one on the team understood Office as well as I did. I thought about calling one of our programmers, or testers, but they didn’t have experience with Office being used by customers.

There was literally no one whom I could ask to find an answer to this question. And that’s when I had the epiphany. If I didn’t know the answer, then there was no one on the planet that knew the correct answer.

Hello, sir?


Thanks for holding. I did some research on your question and I’m afraid I don’t know the answer. In fact, I cannot even think of anyone to ask to find an answer. I don’t think anyone knows.

Oh. . .That’s fine. I was just curious about it anyway. Thanks.

Sometimes the smartest answer is saying, “I don’t know.”

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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