In the military, it’s hard to say “I don’t know”

Disrupting enemy activity

In the dozens of daily interactions military personnel have with one another, the phrase “I don’t know” is rarely heard.

It’s not that everyone in the military is so smart or well-read, it’s mostly a fear of admitting that one doesn’t know what he or she thinks she is supposed to know.

I’ve certainly been guilty of it. Standing in a hallway with a colleague talking about an upcoming training event or plan, I’ve nodded dutifully to a barrage of acronyms or concepts that I’m hardly familiar with.

Military terminology is so laden with jargon, acronyms, clichés, and buzzwords it is a small miracle when any information gets passed along at all.

Most officers can attest to a time some piece of information came across on a radio transmission or a phone call on speaker, and instead of responding immediately looks up to those around him mouthing “What did he say?”

We don’t want to admit ignorance to a subordinate because by virtue of our positional authority we are expected to know more.

We don’t want to admit ignorance to our peers because we are supposed to be of equal knowledge, experience, and ability.

We don’t want to admit ignorance to our superiors out of fear of seeming incompetent and losing trust.

The paradox of this fear is that in most instances it is refreshing to all parties to admit “I don’t know” or to ask the question “Wait, what does the mean?”

Asking a subordinate to clarify an elusive idea or concept gives him the opportunity to explain it in full to his boss. He gets the practice in unpacking the idea and the boss gains better understanding.

Stopping a peer from a barrage of acronyms to get clarification allows her to demonstrate mastery of memorizing another military acronym – a small military feat. That acronym, though, might be the one key to understanding the idea of what is being communicated. The peer will likely enjoy the small kick in dopamine for clearly knowing just a little bit more.

Seeking clarification from a superior on his insistence in hammering a cliché or buzzword allows him to explain exactly what he wants while demonstrating that you -the subordinate- are actually interested in understanding. While it might not be true in all cases, most bosses don’t want blind compliance after a brief; they want true understanding and buy-in. Initial concepts might come out dry and loaded with military-speak. Saying that you don’t understand and seeking clarification gives the speaker the opportunity to try again in regular language, outside of the scope of formal speech.

Admitting “I don’t know” has a powerful effect in an organization. Once one person starts doing it, the doors are opened towards others admitting they don’t know either. Instead of a room full of automatons complying with an order they don’t understand, it becomes acceptable to admit ignorance and subsequently gain understanding.

It’s actually a wonderfully refreshing thing to see someone you respect in your organization admit they don’t know what an acronym means or the concept behind a oft-said piece of jargon. As hard as it might be, try it out next time.

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