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:
- Extrasensory Deception: I
- Negotiation skills are increasingly essential in problem-solving workplaces. When incentives are strong,
or pressure is high, deception is tempting. Here are some of the deceptions popular among negotiators.
- The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Obvious Waste
- Among the most futile and irrelevant actions ever taken in crisis is rearranging the deck chairs of
the Titanic, which, of course, never actually happened. But in the workplace, we engage in activities
just as futile and irrelevant, often outside our awareness. Recognition is the first step to prevention.
- On Badly Written Email
- Even those who aren't great writers do occasionally write clearly, just by chance. But there are some
who consistently produce unintelligible email messages. Why does this happen?
- Social Entry Strategies: II
- When we first engage with a group at work, we employ social entry strategies to make places for ourselves
to carry out our responsibilities, and to find enjoyment and fulfillment at work. Here's Part II of
a little catalog of social entry strategies.
- Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
- People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their
own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how
this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
- Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
- And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
- When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.
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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.