The guys behind the best-selling book Freakonomics produced a podcast a couple of years ago titled “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language”.
The words in question were: “I don’t know.”
Being able to say this in a professional capacity has been the subject of some debate. Some people believe you should never say it, especially in an interview, while others believe CEOs can use it to great advantage.
Nok Nok Labs CEO Phil Dunkelberger has spent decades in the US technology sector including senior positions at Apple, Xerox, and Symantec, and eight years as co-founder and CEO of PGP Corporation. He is also currently serving on the board of Covata, the Australian internet security company. For him, having the courage to say “I don’t know” in answer to a complex question is a requirement for senior positions.
“Most people say, ‘I know’,” Dunkelberger told Business Insider in an interview. “You ask them a question and it’s ‘I know, I know, I know’. These are the people I find that are the most closed to new ideas, new ways of doing things.”
Dunkelberger (or “Dunk”, as he’s known in the industry) says he actively tries to “put people into the “I don’t know” category” when interviewing.
“I like to ask: ‘Tell me about a situation you were in where you didn’t have the right answer, or ambiguity played a big part in what you were looking at. Tell me how you sorted through that,'” he said. “That tells me a lot about people’s integrity to themselves and the process, their inventiveness and entrepreneurial capability.”
Dunk says that over time he has also learned to find people who stick to their word. It stems, he says, from “what my grandmother said, and that was, ‘You know, the world would be a great place to live in if people would just do what they said they were going to do.'”
Here’s an extended excerpt of his comments. The full interview with Dunkelberger will be published this week.
There were two things I always looked for when I was hiring. There were all the basics – you look for somebody who’s bright, and who’s got experience. The two things I always wanted was people that were willing to work – tell me something that was really difficult you did and you didn’t think you could do it, and tell me how you figured that out and what you did to accomplish it. So willing to work. And then willing to learn – and what I mean by that is, how you really value people who will say “I. Don’t. Know”.
The hardest words in the English language are to say, “I don’t know.” Most people say, “I know”. You ask them a question and it’s “I know, I know, I know”. These are the people I find that are the most closed to new ideas, new ways of doing things. I actively, when interviewing, try to put people into the “I don’t know” category. I like to ask: “Tell me about a situation you were in where you didn’t have the right answer, or ambiguity played a big part in what you were looking at. Tell me how you sorted through that.” That tells me a lot about people’s integrity to themselves and the process, their inventiveness and entrepreneurial capability.
The second piece as I’ve aged that I really look at, is really something that goes back to my grandmother’s influence in my life, which is two parts. I look for people that are good at mastering what they’re afraid of, because one of the big driving forces in life when it comes to accomplishing things is being afraid.
And the second part of mastering your fear, to me, is something that critical that comes from what my grandmother said, and that was, “You know, the world would be a great place to live in if people would just do what they said they were going to do.”
Somebody gave me a compliment a couple of months ago saying that, Dunk’s grandmother was right: the world would be a better place if people, friends, family, employees, nation states – pick your group – if people just did what they said they were going to do. Not because it’s popular. Not because of anything other that you said it and you meant it.
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