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Powerful Words, “I Don’t Know”

“I don’t know” are three words that most people dread saying.  The need to know the answer has followed us from school into the working world.   We are loath to admit ignorance.  I have seen colleagues twist themselves into a pretzel inventing an answer.

Providing incorrect information may have negative consequences, including:

  • Something may be done wrong resulting in a bad decision, an unhappy customer, or a faulty product;
  • Effort, time, and resources are wasted;
  • Your credibility may be damaged, affecting your standing within the organization and amongst your peers; and
  • The company, and you personally, may be exposed to undesired risks.

Some advise against saying “I don’t know” because it may be seen as a sign of weakness.   Clarifying the question, answering what you can, and using more oblique phrases are acceptable options.   In my experience, admitting you don’t know is often the best option. 

Below are common scenarios and potential responses:

1.    Your Boss’ Question

We all want to impress our boss. When asked a question that we can’t answer, the safest response is:  “That is a good question.  I do not know the answer (or I don’t have that information with me).  I will get back to you by the end of the day.  Is that all right?”

This response contains three important components:

  • Displaying honesty and demonstrating transparency;
  • Making a firm commitment to providing the answer; and
  • Ensuring agreement. 

It is expected that we have command of information related to our core job responsibilities.  While we do not need to have every detail committed to memory, we should know round numbers, direction, trends, etc.  For example:  “Last month’s sales were approximately $2 million, which is up about 5% from the prior month.   Year-over-year sales are also up, but I don’t recall by how much.  I can get you that information after the meeting.  Is that OK?”

To avoid not knowing an answer, be prepared.  When making a formal presentation take precautionary steps, such as:

  • Know your audience, their points-of-view, and hot-buttons.  Anticipate their questions and have prepared responses;
  • Socialize your material with key stakeholders before the meeting;
  • Know your data.  Know its source and limitations; and
  • Ensure your data foots and all calculations are correct.  Nothing derails a meeting faster than bad math.

When you do not know the answer, do not try to figure it out on the fly—it rarely goes well.  Few of us are talented enough to analyze data and facilitate a meeting at the same time.  It is been better to do the analysis after the meeting and follow up.

I had a colleague who conducted our division’s monthly financial review live.  She brought his laptop and a projector to the leadership meeting, and conducted on-the-spot analytics.  Sometimes, it felt like the executive asked difficult questions just to test her proficiency. 

2.    It’s Not Your Area of Expertise

We often get questions that require specific technical knowledge or involve corporate policies or practices.  In these situations, it is best to say, “I don’t know; and the best person to ask is X.”  For example:

Question:“I am have been trying to resolve this technical problem.  Can you help?” 

Response:“I’m sorry.  I am not familiar with that technology.  I suggest you work with Tom.  He has been working with that technology.   Or, check the job aid wiki, I think that issue was discussed there.”

If you are not familiar with that technical area:

  • You are wasting your own and your colleague’s time since there is a more efficient way to find the answer—consult with an expert; and
  • The solution may be suboptimal.  It may not follow a prescribed design pattern or it may foretell a future problem.

Question:“One of the vendors submitted an expense report that looks funny, what should I do?” 

Response:“Check our company’s reimbursement policy.  It provides specific guidance regarding acceptable expenses.  Let’s discuss if you have further questions.  We may also need to engage Procurement.”

Most companies have well documented policies and standards governing business and management practices.  These documents are carefully crafted to protect the company from risk. I have found that corporate governance organizations (e.g., Legal, HR, Procurement, etc.) prefer providing guidance up-front rather than dealing with a problem later.

3.    You Should Know, But You Don’t

If you are a manger or a subject matter expert, you are expected to know— seemingly everything.  Occasionally, you will be stumped by a question.  When this occurs, its best to say, “That’s a great question!  I don’t know the answer off the top of my head.  Let me research that and I’ll get back to your tomorrow.  Is that OK?” 

With this response, you are:

  • Acknowledging that you have been asked a good question; and
  • Being forthright about the limitation of your knowledge.  

Similar to the other scenarios, it is best defer answering than give a wrong answer.  Wrong answers can lead the person astray, result in an unintended consequence, and/or impact your credibility. 

4.    The Great Unknowns

In organization, there are many big unknowns.  These questions are often the 800-pound gorillas sitting in the corner of the conference room.  These questions are publicly avoided but discussed with great animation in the break room; for example:

  • The project is not going well, what will leadership do?
  • What is impact to our group of the latest reorganization?
  • What will happen now that our company has been acquired?

Engaging in idle speculation is a natural response, but is not constructive or healthy.  These conversations are distracting and often demoralizing.  It is best to say, “I don’t know what is going to happen.  The best thing we can do is concentrate on our work.” 

If you are in a leadership role, it is imperative that you demonstrate constructive behaviors.  Motivate yourself and your team to stay focused.  If changes in strategy and tactics are needed, then embrace the new direction. 

5.    Embrace the Ideas of Others

Being comfortable admitting that you “don’t know” is liberating and empowering.  Actively soliciting input from others and creating an environment where thoughtful disucssions are encouraged leads to better decisions and outcomes.  Activities like the NASA moon landing gameare great team building games that demonstrate the collective wisdom of the group.  

© 2017, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC.   To subscribe


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