If your job requires you to have the answers, a trap awaits: even though you might feel obliged to have all the answers, you actually don't. You might have most of the answers most of the time, but nobody has all the answers all the time. Eventually, someone will ask you something, and you'll begin to answer before you realize you're clueless.
At that point, most people choose one of four options. Some, recognizing their own cluelessness, make up something they hope will satisfy the questioner. Others feel so obliged to answer that they suppress their feelings of cluelessness, and then respond with their best guess, concealing (or not realizing) that they're only guessing. A third group claims to know how to find the answer, even if they don't, and says something like, "I'll get back to you." The last and smallest group responds with some version of, "I don't know."
To make the I-don't-know choice a little easier, here's a little collection of unanswerable questions.
- What were you thinking?
- Even if asked about the present moment, this question is difficult enough, but reconstructing what you were thinking in the past is even more difficult. In a carefully facilitated retrospective, with safety assured, an honest answer is best. Otherwise, the question is likely rhetorical, and in public, you probably have to fall on your sword. Try not to let the sword nick any important body parts.
- Where is person P?
- Unless P is in the room with you, you don't actually know. The best you can offer is your latest information: "I saw him in the hall an hour ago;" or, "Clackamas, last I heard."
- What is/was person P thinking?
- If even P can't answer this question, nobody else can. One reasonable response: "I don't know, exactly, have you asked P?"
- Why did person P make decision D?
- People make decisions for all kinds of reasons, most of them non-rational. Unless there's documentation, you're speculating. One response: "Hmmm…I'd be speculating."
- Why didn't event E happen?
- When things happen, we can often trace causes. But when things don't happen, the reasons can be many, many indeed. One possible response: "Could be any number of reasons…I'm not sure."
- What happened when you were out of the room (on travel, off line, …)?
- You can't You can't offer first-hand
information on anything
that happened when
you weren't presentoffer first-hand information on anything that happened when you weren't present. One possible response: "I'm not sure, have you asked the people who were there?"
- Why do we do things the way we do them?
- Usually, we do what we do because we think we're following a pattern set by our predecessors. But maybe not. Unless you've actually researched this particular topic, you're just guessing.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Stonewalling: I
- Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction used by those who wish to stall the forward progress of some
effort. Whether the effort is a rival project, an investigation, or just the work of a colleague, the
stonewaller hopes to gain advantage. What can you do about stonewalling?
- Extrasensory Deception: II
- In negotiating agreements, the partners who do the drafting have an ethical obligation not to exploit
the advantages of the drafting role. Some drafters don't meet that standard.
- How to Undermine Your Subordinates
- People write to me occasionally that their bosses undermine them, but I know there are bosses who want
to do more undermining than they are already doing. So here are some tips for bosses aspiring to sink
- Why Others Do What They Do
- If you're human, you make mistakes. A particularly expensive kind of mistake is guessing incorrectly
why others do what they do. Here are some of the ways we get this wrong.
- How to Deal with Holding Back
- When group members voluntarily restrict their contributions to group efforts, group success is threatened
and high performance becomes impossible. How can we reduce the incidence of holding back?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 25: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VI
- Narcissistic behavior at work distorts decisions, disrupts relationships, and generates toxic conflict. These consequences limit the ability of the organization to achieve its goals. In this part of our series we examine the effects of exploiting others for personal ends. Available here and by RSS on April 25.
- And on May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
- Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.