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Why it’s Okay to Admit you Don’t Know the Answer — and What To Do Next 22 October 2019

So — do you know your Withdrawal Agreement Bill from your European Union (Withdrawal) (No 2) Act?  Have you nailed the distinction between the Customs Union and the Single Market?  Did you ever, truthfully, understand the Backstop? 

I’m not sure many of us have the details off pat, and I include myself in that group.  When Brexit has cropped up in recent reporting duties, I’ve had to mug up on them quickly.  And I think there’s a lesson in this for all of us, whatever our line of work.  It’s good to admit when you don’t fully understand something. 

And I don’t mean simply to admit it to yourself.  I’ve noticed a growing number of excellent journalists, on all channels, admitting on air that things are becoming really, really complicated.  This is useful, because (as a member of the audience) it makes me feel less inadequate, and therefore more receptive to the explanations reporters are able to give for what the hell is going on at Westminster and Brussels these days. 

And have you noticed the methods they sometimes use?  Cracking imagery, and simple questions.  The BBC’s Political Editor, Laura Kuenssburg, recently described the potential scenario in Parliament this week as akin to a Christmas tree (the bill), when every member of the family squabbles endlessly about which decorations (the amendments) are going to go where.  As the calendar ticks towards the 25th.  Aha, I thought.  I get it now. 

Tom Bradby, the senior news presenter on ITN’s News at Ten, often starts his introductions with a chatty statement, rather than a bunch of facts:   Something like “It was the day when x was meant to happen, but it hasn’t quite happened like that, and there are red faces at Westminster today.”   The result?  If we, the audience, get bogged down in the detail that immediately follows, we’ll at least still be able to visualise something that moves our understanding on. 

Of course, as a manager, you don’t want to give the impression too often that you haven’t got a clue.  That’s not a good leadership look.  This morning I asked a business leader whether she thought it was okay to admit when you don’t know something.  “Yes” she said.  So long as you then make sure you tell your team you’re going to try to find out. 

Do you admit to your teams and staff when you don’t know the answer to something?  Or do you just bluff your way through?   If this Brexit Crescendo Week is teaching me anything, it’s that we can’t all know everything all the time.  But we do need to know what we need to find out.


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Brexit image courtesy of speakeasy-news.com

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