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 irrational. 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:
- When Leaders Fight
- Organizations often pretend that feuds between leaders do not exist. But when the two most powerful
people in your organization go head-to-head, everyone in the organization suffers. How can you survive
a feud between people above you in the org chart?
- Political Framing: Communications
- In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual
by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for
reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some communications tactics framers use.
- OODA at Work
- OODA is a model of decision making that's especially useful in rapidly evolving environments, such as
combat, marketing, politics, and emergency management. Here's a brief overview.
- On Snitching at Work: I
- Some people have difficulty determining the propriety of reporting violations to authorities at work.
Proper or not, reporting violations can be simultaneously both risky and necessary.
- The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: I
- Organizational processes can get so complicated that nobody actually knows how they work. If getting
something done takes too long, the organization can't lead its markets, or even catch up to the leaders.
Why does this happen?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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