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.
Perhaps the most reasonable unanswerable question is, "How much better can we make this?" Any response must be conditional. One possible answer: "Lots. How much do you want to spend?" Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Dealing with Org Chart Age Inversions
- What happens when you learn that your new boss is younger than you are? Or when the first two applicants
you interview for a position reporting to you are ten years older than you are? Do you have a noticeable
reaction to org chart age inversions?
- Stalking the Elephant in the Room: II
- When everyone is thinking something that no one dares discuss, we say that there is "an elephant
in the room." Free-ranging elephants are expensive and dangerous to both the organization and its
people. Here's Part II of a catalog of indicators that elephants are about.
- 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?
- Suspense Is Not Your Friend
- Most of us have to talk to other people at work. Whether to peers, subordinates, or superiors, sometimes
we must convey information that can be complicated when delivered in full detail. To convey complicated
ideas effectively, avoid suspense.
- That Was a Yes-or-No Question: II
- When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances
are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no
See also Workplace Politics and Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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