Several years ago, a community member approached me at a wrestling meet.
The individual had questions about property taxes and they came to me seeking answers.
As a high school assistant principal, I had a baseline understanding of school finance. But to say I thoroughly understood property taxes would be a stretch.
I quickly realized I did not have an answer to this question. Embarrassed, I proceeded to give my best response, while admitting I would need to do some checking and get back to this person.
“Oh gosh I'm sorry,” responded the gentleman. “I figured you would know since you’re an administrator.”
Disappointment consumed my emotions upon leaving the event. I took pride in having answers, so not knowing what to tell this curious stakeholder made me feel like an imposter.
School leaders are asked dozens of questions throughout the day. Questions can be diverse, ranging from special education law to hot lunch prices to parent visitation rights.
In these situations, leaders often feel the pressure to have answers. “I’m in charge, I should know this” is a common feeling, leading some administrators to make guesses or give incorrect answers as opposed to admitting “I don’t know.”
But rather than have to know everything, administrators must realize that not knowing is okay. The world of education is incredibly complex and nuanced, making it impossible for any one person to know every detail relevant to their position.
In addition to admitting when they don’t have an answer, leaders are advised to use another counterintuitive tactic: asking "dumb questions."
Smart leaders develop a sixth sense for realizing when basic, underlying questions need to be asked. When bosses bring "dumb questions” to the surface, two things happen: clarity is provided to the topic being discussed and permission is given to others to be vulnerable.
Consider the various meetings you attend. Do you believe everyone at the table has a deep understanding of the topics being debated? Often, attendees are limited in their knowledge and are trying to play catch-up while others are talking. But rather than publicly admit their confusion, these individuals avoid embarrassment by nodding their head and going along with the group.
By scanning the room, reading body language, and knowing the strengths of their people, effective leaders pause the discussion when they realize unanswered questions are lurking. This takes confidence and humility, but – when properly applied – results in shared understanding and informed decision-making.
Being comfortable “not knowing” also comes in handy with a sneaky group of individuals I like to call "fast talkers."
Fast talkers are people who are assertive and articulate. Whether they are an employee, a partent, or a community member, these individuals prey on school leaders, looking for every opportunity to push their agenda forward with little to no resistance.
Salespeople are another example. When you move into a leadership role, suddenly everyone wants your business. Yearbook representatives to fundraising marketers to professional speakers – these people appear out of thin air when you become the person in charge.
Some salespeople talk so quickly and are so convincing that it's overwhelming. But rather than pause the conversation to seek clarification, many administrators simply nod their head in agreement.
Do not fall into this trap! As a leader, recognize that it’s your responsibility to make sense of things and don’t move on until you do. If you’re feeling pressured, calmly declare, “I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to slow you down so I can understand what you’re saying.”
In addition to admitting when they don't know something, administrators must encourage employees to do the same. The following are seven tips for creating an environment where staff feel comfortable speaking up when they lack understanding:
Be Intentional: Administrators must constantly remind employees that not knowing is okay and it’s important to ask questions. Purposefully inserting phrases into meetings such as “does this make sense to everyone?” and “this is a safe space for asking questions” gives employees permission to admit when they have lingering questions, doubts, and concerns.
Lead by Example: Leaders must always be willing to “go first” when it comes to admitting when they don’t know something. Administrators who have the courage to say, "Is anyone here besides me confused?" or "Can I ask a dumb question?" show others that its okay to pause the conversation when underlying context is missing.
Visibility: Being visible is one of the best ways for administrators to create a safe space for asking questions. Sometimes, staff refrain from asking questions in a formal setting, regardless of how safe the environment is. But when administrators proactively visit classrooms and offices, they find that employees are more willing to open up and ask their questions or concerns.
Email Me: Administrators who are constantly on the go get asked several questions throughout the day - many of which they don't have an immediate answer to. In these situations, administrators should ask employees to email their question. Emails ensure that the employee request is not forgotten, and give administrators time to search for an answer.
Set the Tone: When communicating information through email, administrators should remind employees that it’s perfectly fine to ask questions. Furthermore, employees should be directed where they can go if they have questions. Adding this one additional statement to important communication creates an atmosphere of support and openness.
Always let employees know it's okay to ask questions.
Explain: Far too often, administrators take for granted what employees know about school processes. Topics such as school funding, board policy, and building construction are often glossed over and rarely discussed. When administrators give a behind-the-scenes look at district operations, employees feel more-connected to the broader organization.
Take the High Road: School administrators should never make employees feel bad for asking a question – especially in the presence of others. While some staff might be annoying and some questions might feel random, school leaders should always be tactful in their response while protecting the dignity of their employees.
I love helping others.
So when someone asks me a question, I want to have an answer.
Rather than feel embarrassed, I now feel comfortable saying, “I’ll be honest – I don’t know. But I’ll get back to you with an answer.”
Stop thinking you have to have all the answers.
Instead, understand that it’s okay not knowing.