Having worked in any industry for over 10 years, you invariably pick up certain accepted industry terms; phrases, techniques and rules of thumb that provide the back bone of much of the jargon & acronyms that we use to speak to colleagues and clients. In research, you will come across terms such as weighting, base size, r value, NPS and margin of error.

Without going into too much statistics here, for those that don’t know, margin of error deals with the likelihood that a specific answer will happen again if you repeat the survey. If a survey says that 60% of people like the colour blue, a margin of error of 5% means that if you repeated the survey again, the proportion of people who like blue will be somewhere within 55% and 65%: 5% above or below the original score of 60%. The margin of error can differ due to sample size – the number of people you speak to – plus other factors, like standard deviation and confidence levels. All of these are words and phrases that we in the research world use regularly and discuss with clients frequently. Margin of error – amongst a number of other terms – helps to provide the rationale for much of our research design and our analysis decisions.

For over 10 years I was comfortable in my ability to explain all of this. But the other day a client asked me a question I had never been asked before.

For over 10 years I was comfortable in my ability to explain all of this. But the other day a client asked me a question I had never been asked before (thanks Rajeev for inspiring this post!). “Who first came up with the theory of margin of error?” I must confess I was stumped. I could recall many mathematicians whose work we use in the research industry, but I had no idea who first looked at margin of errors*. Which brings me to the topic of this post. When should you admit that you don’t know?

Selena Rezvani writing for Forbes suggests that saying that you ‘don’t know’ can make you look clueless and so puts forwards 5 alternatives. However, all of them seem like politician or management speak to me: obfuscation and avoidance. In my opinion, people respect honesty. When asked who first came up with the theory of margin of error – I couldn’t reply with “That’s a timely question because I’m currently gathering information on this for my blog…”, one of the strategies Rezvani suggests. So I simply said I did not know, because I have never been asked that question before. I could explain the reason for the theory without having to recall the origin. This actually happens more often than you would think. To bring in a football analogy, I can explain the offside rule – but have no idea who first decided to use it (although Wikipedia tells me it was probably a committee for the Cambridge rules).

One of the key pillars of a good client relationship is trust. At Kadence, a guiding principle is the Trust Equation: Trust = (Reliability + Credibility + Intimacy)/Self-interest. Of these elements, one of the hardest things to develop and foster with a client is a level of intimacy; showing that beyond the faceless, rational corporate suit there’s a personal connection there. Surely then, admitting you don’t know something is one of those opportunities. It’s a human moment, where you reveal something about yourself and are, for a rare moment in business, exposed. It’s intimate.

There’s a reason, though, why both Intimacy and Credibility are in the Trust Equation. There are some things that you really should know in order to demonstrate credibility. Saying I didn’t know who came up with the idea of margin of errors is OK; not being able to explain it, as a researcher, is not. However, when you have the opportunity to say you don’t know, take it. Not only does it open a very brief window into you as a person, it’s a growth opportunity and – like with my experience last month – an opening for a more intimate conversation with the client cementing that relationship and building trust.

Too often in business we don’t enter the danger of admitting a weakness or a lack of knowledge. Instead we feign wisdom for the fear of losing face. Certainly there are times when this is necessary, but I think clients are more likely to not only respect the truth but also warm to genuineness.

So in the future, I will happily say that ‘I don’t know’ to clients if I don’t. I don’t want to sugar coat, sidestep or avoid. I want to be transparent and up front. I know what I need to know and am always keen to learn more. And as for who invented Margin of Error – I’m not sure that I will be asked in the future. But if I am, at least I now know the answer.

*The answer, in case you were wondering is generally agreed to be Jerzy Neyman https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerzy_Neyman