Career, Self

It’s okay to say “I don’t know”

As you all know if you’ve been following my (albeit sporadic) posting, I work for county government and I wanted to share with you something that has confounded me since the day I started. I apologize in advance for the long-winded venting, but here goes.

It’s okay to not know what you don’t know.

Why is it unacceptable to admit that you don’t know?

Sometimes (many times) I don’t know the answer to questions or problems that desperately need an answer. Each week, I attend commission, council, or other public meetings that allow the public to voice their questions or concerns to their leaders. I also field many phone calls from the public and media as part of my day-to-day job duties.

Some people are upset with, angry at, or generally displeased with the government – they can’t get the answers they need, they’re unhappy at how our agency deals with the problem they are facing, or they are angry that we can’t do things more quickly to solve their problem.

Sometimes, these encounters make me want to run away or hang up the phone or hide. All because I don’t the answer to the question they are asking or a way to solve their problem, and I don’t feel that saying “I don’t know” is an option.

Saying “I don’t know” is often perceived, especially in local government, as unacceptable, a non-option, a figurative suicide. All because it is assumed that I, and subsequently all other government or public employees, should know. On most occasions, it’s assumed that a public employee knows everything they are needed to know.

Someone needs me to know how they can contest their property taxes, or voice their discontent about a matter of public spending. And, sometimes, I don’t know that answer.

Saying “I don’t know” to a concerned member of the public isn’t seen as an option because many people and communities look to their local government for solutions, leadership, consistency, transparency, and comfort.

To a member of the public looking for guidance, any public employee that answers their call is that organization – and that’s a scary amount of pressure for public employees to bear. And when you can’t provide an answer to them, they feel even more lost, confused, and frustrated than they did to begin with.

But, is all of that actually a valid reason to withhold our vulnerability from the community that we serve? Do we really expect every public employee, regardless of training or knowledge or expertise, to have all of the answers? A logical answer would be – no.

Public employees are just people. We are all just humans trying to help other humans, and serve in a profession with a vision of betterment for our communities, neighbors, friends, and families.

However, I’m not saying that governments (large and small) cannot solve hard problems or that they shouldn’t try to guide people through their issues with dignity and helpfulness. I wholeheartedly believe that they can and should. It may take longer than anticipated. It may not take the final shape you anticipated, but I believe that change can be made. And I definitely believe that it is my role, and the role of government employees in general, to help our community however we can in the best way that we can – every. single. time.

But, as community members, and especially as government employees, we need to remember that we are all human. That the organizations and agencies we work for are just a group of every-day people who have decided to serve their community. People with families, pets, hobbies, and livelihoods outside of the office. That even with unlimited resources and knowledge, we would all still be limited by our worldviews and experiences that shape our understanding of the world.

That’s why I think it should be okay to say “I don’t know” – especially when you work in public service. Saying “I don’t know” allows your humanity to show, and allows vulnerability to enter the conversation.

That vulnerability leads to humbling conversations, exponential growth, and the ability to impact another person on a human level.

Let’s embrace our imperfectness, our humanness, and recognize that we are showing up to make the community better and that is enough.

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