Thoughts about hr and management in the real world – extra information I couldn't fit in my books!.

The 3 hardest words to say

Over the new year break I read ‘Think like a Freak’, a brilliant book that followed on from ‘Freakonomics’ and explores how to think differently and ask freakonomic type questions to get new answers!

The whole book is well worth a read, but one part stood out to me. In one chapter the authors share an experiment conducted with school kids. The kids were told a little story and then had to answer 4 questions about it. See how you do:

Ben and Ellie’s mum took them to the zoo. They drove there in a yellow car. They had lunch first and ate sandwiches and fruit salad. Then they looked at the lions and the elephants.

Question 1: What colour was the car they drove in?

Question 2: Did they have pizza for lunch?

Question 3: Did they listen to music in the car?

Question 4: Did they have orange juice with lunch?

Most kids got questions 1 and 2 correct (yellow and no). But you actually haven’t got enough information to answer either question 3 or 4. Yet 76% of kids made a guess and answered yes or no.

Now you might argue that kids don’t know that they can’t say ‘I don’t know’. Adults, on the other hand, do know that ‘I don’t know’ is an option. However they rarely say it too.

Is it because they don’t want to lose face? Is it because they want to show themselves as an expert? These are some of the reasons. Another seems to be that most of us actually have very poor insight about our own skills and ability levels. In an experiment where they asked people to rate their driving skills, roughly 80% of respondents rated themselves better than the average driver. But how can 80% of us be better than average?? The book also explores other complexities about why it happens.

But what about if we apply this to HR? Just how hard is it to admit you don’t know?

One of my new business ventures is – a set of online tests for HR, Payroll, Safety and Recruitment. We recently launched the first 2 HR Assessments. These have a series of multi-choice questions and answers with option E always being ‘I’m not sure, I’d need to check’. I fundamentally believe in HR that it’s better to admit that you don’t know than to get it wrong – because the consequences can be drastic and cost your company a lot of money.

I analysed 40 of the results from the Level 1 assessment (basic employment law knowledge for people in roles where they are completing IEA’s and giving basic HR advice). What I found was:

  • On average people got 30 questions right, 22 questions wrong and 8 that they didn’t know. This means that it is a hard test (yes you do have to know stuff in HR – even at a lower level!) but also that while people got half the questions right, they also got a third of the questions wrong, rather than pick ‘I don’t know’.
  • Of the 40 people, 6 people NEVER choose ‘I don’t know’ for ANY questions. And while they got on average 35 questions right, they also got 25 questions wrong.
  • Another 13 people choose ‘I don’t know’ 3 times or less, meaning from our sample, just under 50% barely admitted there was anything they didn’t know.

Now the people doing the test weren’t going for job interview – they were completing the assessment for their own knowledge and development, so we could norm the results and check the test validity. If no-one else is going to see your results, would you try and guess more to see if you were right? Or would you try and guess less to see what you actually knew?

I do know that over the years recruiting for HR Advisors for my own team, I’ve always asked some technical questions about HR legislation. I remembering interviewing a male candidate once and asked him about casual employees and annual leave (we had a lot of casuals in retail). He got the answer completely wrong and my Senior HR Advisor who knew the answer, snorted with laughter. That still didn’t alert him to the fact he was incorrect and when I checked if that really was what he thought, he confirmed it was. He went into the unsuccessful pile very quickly!!So who is a good candidate?

I think we need to make sure that ‘I don’t know’ isn’t the hardest 3 words in the English language and the honour goes back to that other classic ‘I love you’!!

As for the experiment I mentioned at the beginning, they repeated it, this time calling it ‘Helping Children Correctly Say ‘I don’t know’ to Unanswerable Questions’. This time round they told the kids that they could say ‘I don’t know’. That time, the kids were wildly successful at saying ‘I don’t know!’.

For me personally looking at the 40 results (just the data – not their names!) there was one person who got 29 correct, 5 wrong and 26 where they didn’t know. If I was hiring for an HR Advisor – this would be the person I would pick. I would rather have someone who gets the average amount right, and admits they don’t know the rest and would need to check, than someone who gets it wrong. Would you?


Angela Atkins has worked in HR and L&D for the last 19 years. She is the owner of Elephant Training and HR and helps Elephant organise conferences and events. Recently she became the Director of Management Bites International – launching the Management Bites programme globally and – providing online industry testing. She is also the author of 3 bites books (the fourth – Safety Bites coming soon).


3 comments on “The 3 hardest words to say

  1. Well best post This is very useful and interesting thanks for this, and lets have a look to this blog here get important information on Hr management

  2. Kim Willcox Lee
    January 25, 2016

    Hi Angela

    An interesting article. Another option would be….. I’m not absolutely sure so I would like to check, but I think it’s…… (lots of multichoice options though). Often in these cases your instinct or checking proves you did know. But how do we test for that? Sounds like a very interesting book.


    Kim Willcox Lee – Human Resources Advisor
    IPENZ, Engineers New Zealand, Level 3, 50 Customhouse Quay, PO Box 12 241, Wellington 6144
    P +64 4 474 8938 |
    (please note I work part time, Monday to Thursdays only)

    The information contained in this email message is private and confidential. If you are not the named recipient, any use, disclosure, copying or
    distribution of the information is prohibited. If you have received this message in error please notify the sender immediately and destroy the
    message. Opinions expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect IPENZ policy.
    Please consider the environment before printing this email

    • angelaatkins
      January 28, 2016

      Hi Kim, a good point – sometimes you think you know but aren’t quite sure! In terms of the testing we had to either test that you know the answer, got it wrong or aren’t sure. You could take the test once to go through and test what you know – then again once you’ve had a look at the areas you got right and wrong. The book I mentioned is definitely worth a read!
      Hope all else is good with you, Angela.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on January 15, 2016 by in culture and tagged , .
%d bloggers like this: