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:
- Nasty Questions: I
- Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather,
they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's
political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
- Organizational Loss: Searching Behavior
- When organizations suffer painful losses, their responses can sometimes be destructive, further harming
the organization and its people. Here are some typical patterns of destructive responses to organizational
- Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
- When we investigate what went wrong, we sometimes encounter obstacles. Interviewing witnesses and participants
doesn't always uncover the reasons why. What are these obstacles?
- Deep Trouble and Getting Deeper
- Here's a catalog of actions people take when the projects they're leading are in deep trouble, and they're
pretty sure there's no way out.
- The Discontinuity Effect: What and Why
- Counterproductive competition is more likely in group-group interactions than in one-to-one or one-to-group
interactions. Why does counterproductive competition happen?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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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.