The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Most Powerful Words in Business
  • Jayne McQuillan

The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Most Powerful Words in Business

Updated: Jan 9, 2019



When was the last time you were really stuck on a problem in your organization?  The kind where you not only couldn't find a solution, but weren't even sure why you were stuck in the first place.


For example, you're way behind your annual sales goal and no one seems to know why. People throw out the usual reasons: the economy hasn't come back yet. Competition lowered their prices. Salespeople aren't working hard enough. Our product doesn't have enough features. Blah, blah, blah...


By the way, the two most important words in business are "Thank you."  You should use them often with your customers, employees, and partners.


Now, back to your problem. If everyone were to get real honest, the answer to why you're miles behind on your sales goal is probably the third, fourth and fifth most powerful words in business: I don't know. In fact, when people are throwing out nothing but old ideas and clich's, it almost guarantees that the best answer is I don't know.

What makes these words so powerful?  The human brain is a problem solving machine. The great thing about that, is that it has almost unlimited creativity.  At the same time, it doesn't like ambiguity.  To the brain, I don't know is not an answer. So if it can't find a legitimate answer to a question or problem, it will often make one up.That's how we end up firing salespeople and sales managers when they're not the problem. That's why we lower prices when we don't need to. That's why we use the economy as an excuse when the solution lies elsewhere.

When looking for answers, the brain also has a tendency to draw upon past successes. As in, "This worked well for us in the past, therefore it will work again." So when faced with seemingly unsolvable problems, we dredge up what worked in the past and rationalize our way into believing that those answers still apply - even when today's circumstances indicate otherwise. 


Another reason we avoid saying I don't know has to do with ego.  In corporate America, "I don't know," is often seen as a sign of weakness or being unprepared.  So we hold back for fear of looking bad.  I don't knowcan also be seen as an admission of failure, which is absurd. In today's information-overload world, leaders can't possibly have all the answers. And with the ever-faster pace of change, it has become increasingly difficult to know anything with certainty anymore. Yet, rather than admit we don't have all the answers, we forge ahead with what we hope is a good solution. 


The power of I don't know is simple: the words free our brains up to explore possibilities and find great answers! They enable us to cast aside all the old ideas, excuses and rationalizations that our brains want us to believe, and adopt a position of inquiry rather than justification.

It takes guts to say "I don't know." Especially in organizations that don't tolerate mistakes or failure. But it is a very freeing experience. More important, it's often the first step to finding the best alternatives and solutions to problems. 

So how open is your organization to those saying, I don't know?  Not because they didn't prepare or do their job, but because there is a problem they don't know the answer to.

Don't just make it safe in your business to say I don't know, actively encourage it!  You might be surprised as to the creative juices that begin to flow when there isn't a position to defend, or a preconceived answer.

Green, Holly. "Executive Street Insider."Vistage Village. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 May 2013. <village.vistage.com/community/vistage_topics/buzz_blog/blog/2013/04/23/the-third-fourth-and-fifth-most-powerful-words-in-business?doAuth=true&uid=0VBMN%25252BKzkxB1EEZAJgrOdmdSu


Jayne McQuillan, CPA, MBA, CEPA is a strategic management consultant, and the owner of Journey Consulting, LLC, in Green Bay



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