About two months after I started my first full-time position as a developer the company held a leadership panel for all employees. Each department got their own time slot, during which you got to sit down with the CEO, Vice President of Technology, and Head of Sales to ask questions and receive advice. The company was relatively small, so we all knew these people from around the office — I think a lot of people there had heard the same spiel a few times, but I was new to this job, the field, and, honestly, new to the professional office environment, so I brought my notebook and took notes.
While I appreciated all of the personal anecdotes about success and failure, one piece of advice stuck out to me. Each person on the panel touched on the same point, but the CEO spelled it out plain and clear. If someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, the best response is always: I don’t know…but I’ll find out.
Everyone struggles with this scenario throughout a career. When you are just starting out you will feel the need to prove yourself. If someone asks something you aren’t sure of you may answer incorrectly or you may just clam up. Once your a little more experienced you may be inclined to elaborate on what little you actually know, but you’re likely to eat your words later. Even at a senior level you may need to answer questions that rely on the work or knowledge of others, your employees or other departments. It is tempting to be the one that gives the answer they are looking for — a shorter timeline or “expected” figures.
But think about the situation from the asker’s perspective. They don’t know the answer to their question either. They need the information and they don’t want to be lied to, or conned, or given incorrect data, even if it sounds good or gets to them faster. According to these panelists, often the ones asking the questions, they absolutely respect that they are putting you on the spot and are ready to hear, “I don’t know…but I’ll find out.”
So here’s the trick — anyone can say “I don’t know” and mean it — you have to be proactive about getting the information as quickly as possible. If this is the third time you are being asked and you still do not have an answer, the advice begins to fall apart. However, if you are mature enough to admit to not knowing the first time, and then take the initiative to find out, people are going to notice. As a rule, people respect honesty.
Really this advice boils down to some really basic concepts that we generally accept as good practice. I think most professionals would agree that honesty, integrity, and a proactive attitude will take you places. But when you’re on the spot in a meeting or a presentation and all eyes are on you, it’s hard to make the connection and remember that it is okay to not know everything.
Since receiving this advice I have started to pay attention to other people’s response in these high pressure moments. I found that the coworkers that were willing to admit fault or lack of knowledge were often the ones I enjoyed working with the most and the ones for whom I already had respect. Those who always had an answer for everything, were also known for being less reliable. No n knows everything! In the end, the advice panned out at all levels.
So the next time you’re on the spot, take a second to remember that you are human. Remember that the person putting you on the spot is human. And answer honestly.