To be successful, just admit ‘I don’t know’

“Let me run something by you,” said my friend, Nick. “For the first time in my career, I allowed myself to tell a client that I didn’t know the answer to her question. She said that she was impressed, because I’m the first lawyer who hasn’t BS’d her.”

But he was worried: “She thinks I’m incompetent, right?”

Now, here’s something you need to know: this was a dog custody case, in family court, that Nick took on as a favor to one of his colleagues. Nick is a top-flight commercial litigator with Ivy League degrees and almost 20 years of experience.

But he was still worried that he was being judged for not knowing everything. What he didn’t weigh enough: because this was his first family law case, of course there were things he didn’t know.

We want to be omniscient

Nick’s fretting stayed with me long after our conversation, and long after he figured everything out and won the case. It encompassed what I know to be the experience of many lawyers, especially in the top firms. We are conditioned to think that making a mistake is a calamity; not knowing something is a fatal flaw.

This is natural for high-achieving people. Even though most errors are fixable — and admitting and fixing them is a great way to impress a boss — sometimes they carry with them heavy consequences.

Some examples: There are uncomfortable conversations with superiors; there’s the implicit threat of losing out on big projects in the future; there’s the high potential of being labeled unreliable.

What you can learn from the scientific method

I came to the law from the lab. In basic science, we constantly lived in the twin states of “I don’t know” and “oops, I made a mistake.” But we were expected to grow our knowledge, partly by analyzing our missteps and learning from them.

It was jarring, therefore, to enter the world of law, where mistakes are not tolerated — and stating the wrong answer with confidence may still be better for your career than honestly acknowledging that you need to look something up.

Most attorneys I know want to do an excellent job. They research their answers meticulously. They strive to provide the best advice to their clients, and produce error-free documents. It is detailed, thorough, immaculate work.

They do not revel in being reckless or getting away with doing poor work. When they make a mistake, it bothers them. A lot.

Hiding mistakes at work can turn into a toxic brew of lies and crisis

A punitive attitude towards mistakes does not create a more perfect lawyer, but rather the opposite. It is not productive, neither for the individual nor for the organization.

On the individual level, we never make more mistakes than when we work for someone of whom we are afraid.

When half of our brain is devoted to the useless thought loop of “don’t make a mistake; I’m sure I’m doing everything wrong; I’m going to get fired,” it’s almost impossible to concentrate sufficiently on the complex work before us to do it well.

On the organizational level, a punitive culture prompts people to hide their errors with two detrimental outcomes.

First, when people do not report their mistakes, there is no opportunity to institute corrective procedures nor an opportunity for the wider team to learn and become better.

Second, rather than fixing it in time, it is likely that a mistake will fester until it turns into a crisis.

An organization with a punitive culture also stifles innovation, which is necessarily risky, messy, and requires making mistakes.

This kills creativity. If an innovator is beset by constant criticism, it is more likely that he or she will quit than persevere.

Perfectionism destroys workplaces

Workplaces where perfectionism flourishes is not unique to law.

I’ve heard similar stories about engineering firms, financial institutions, governmental offices and others. Newspapers hide factual corrections days later, in tiny boxes that few people see.

There is one profession that’s starting to get it. The medical profession now recognizes the negative impact of a punitive environment, and is moving toward a non-punitive accountability model.

The Joint Commission, which accredits and certifies over 21,000 healthcare facilities, encourages treating mistakes just like data: something we can analyze to get better.

Critical to establishing a safety culture is a non-punitive reporting culture. The aim of a safety culture is not a ‘blame free’ culture, but one that balances learning with accountability, assesses errors and patterns in a uniform manner, and eliminates unprofessional (intimidating) behaviors . . . The trust, report, and improve cycle allows proactive and reactive risk reduction because staff report errors, close calls, and unsafe situations.

When the medical profession, where mistakes may literally be a matter of life and death, recognizes that to err is human, shouldn’t we all follow suit?