Why it’s OK to say you don’t know…

Chaos on the railways, caused by adverse weather, new timetables or strikes; chaos at airports due to snow and ice; uncertainty in an ailing organisation which needs to make people redundant, but hasn’t said who will go. 

What do all these situations have in common?  In my experience, the greatest complaint from people involved in these scenarios is always the same: “We don’t know what’s going on. No one is telling us anything.”


Most people realise that if there is a foot of snow on the runway, and more is falling, there is little chance of their flight leaving any time soon.  However, they understandably become frustrated and angry if no one can tell them what they are supposed to do in the meantime.  Equally, any seasoned rail commuter can tell you just how frustrating it is to stand on a station platform waiting for a late-running train, with no idea of why the delay has occurred, or how long it might last.

The problem with situations in which no information is made available is that nature abhors a vacuum, as they say, and so other ‘information’ materialises to fill that space.  Rumour, speculation, half-truths and downright lies are generated because there is no genuine information to challenge it.  Fake news is not a new phenomenon.  It existed long before social media were developed.  It has always been out there in situations in which organisations are either holding back from issuing bad news, or are not prepared to admit that they simply don’t know something.

In decades of working in and with organisations in both the public and private sectors I have heard people complain about all sorts of things, but I have never, ever, heard anyone complain about receiving too much information from management.  And today we have so many means of rapid communication available to us that there is simply no excuse for failing to pass on information the moment it becomes available.

The worse the situation, the more important communication becomes. And if there is genuinely no information to pass on in such a situation, we need to say so, or people will think we’re holding out on them at exactly the time we most need to maintain their trust.

Internal communication within an organisation of any kind is a bit like a river – people tend to take it for granted until the flow stops.  As a result, such communication (and often the people responsible for it), has tended to be under-appreciated.  And yet if you aren’t even communicating effectively with your employees, what chance do your customers have of knowing what’s going on?  And if you’ve lost the trust of your employees and your customers because they think you’re holding out on them, what future does the organisation have?

In an organisation which has fallen on hard times (and there are all too many these days), and especially when redundancies are likely, people need information as never before.  Their very livelihoods are at stake. Even telling them that you don’t know something, or that something hasn’t been decided yet, i.e. communicating uncertainty, is a form of information. It at least shows that you acknowledge and respect people’s need for information.

Even saying you don’t know is better than silence.

Richard Scott

Chief Researcher, People in Flow Ltd

To discover more about People in Flow’s range of effective communication programmes go to www.peopleinflow.com

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