By Julie Johnson
“Aaaaaagh! I don’t know!”

“Aaaaaagh! I don’t know!”

I’ve lost count, but I’ve probably had hundreds of coaching conversations where the challenge at hand was that the coachee did not want to admit not knowing something when asked. Sometimes, no matter what was asked! Being asked a question one doesn’t have an answer to can be especially uncomfortable when giving a presentation, particularly in front of a group of people important to one’s career. 

Granted, this is a culturally sensitive topic. Some cultures expect the boss to know more than those reporting to them. At the other extreme, there are cultures that see the courage to admit not knowing as a strength.

Needless to say, many executives prefer to manage divisions that fall under their own expertise. And the desire to be a specialist versus a generalist is unique per individual.

Consider these two situations:

  • Situation 1: The executive was promoted into the position due to being an exceptional expert in the field, with the ability to assess the situation and generate solutions quickly.
  • Situation 2: The executive was promoted into the position with a lack of expertise, yet with strong leadership skills, comfort with ambiguity, and the ability to challenge and enable very knowledgeable direct reports.

A few months ago, I was coaching an executive who had just been promoted into a position in an area where she had relatively little knowledge or expertise. She had to manage specialists. Her newly acquired area was absolutely essential to the success of the business. She confessed her lack of technical knowledge, and admitted that she was dependent on the expertise of her direct reports in order to succeed. In addition, they were so good at what they did that she needed to motivate them to stay with the organization and perform well, and not be bought off by a competitor. 

Not knowing everything (and not needing to know) – and showing visible comfort with that – were top of the agenda. Oh, did we brainstorm! How can one respond to a question one cannot answer? Here are our co-created ideas:

  • “Based upon what I am hearing, it sounds like….” [you have qualified your opinion as based on the conversation in progress – the trick is to remain open to shifting your opinion should new information arise that alters things];
  • “Based on what I know, I think….” [notice that you are right based on what you know – you simply don’t know everything yet];
  • “I’m not sure, but I know where to get the answer. Shall I get back to you?” [then note the promised task in front of everyone – signaling that you are a person of your word];
  • “Johan, this seems to be more your area – what are your thoughts?”;
  • “Let me throw that question back to the group – what do you think?”;
  • “I don’t know, but what I do know is….” [and then move the agenda wherever you want to – this is known as the politician’s approach, yet it can sometimes be useful];
  • “I don’t think we have a clear answer on this yet. It is important however. How can we gain clarity?” [really, when the question is important, then knowing the answer oneself is much less important than getting someone to find the answer];
  • “This is beyond the scope of our work. Does it make sense to expand our scope to research this, as well?” [this moves the conversation toward determining priorities].

At a certain point, our coaching conversation shifted. We discussed how my coachee could figure out what she did need to know, and what she didn’t need to know (and probably even shouldn’t know). Consider the opportunity cost of learning about every detail – spending one’s time getting overly technical – versus knowing enough to be able to make sound decisions and focus on the big picture. She needed to stay strategic, not only at her level, but to also be a sparring partner with her boss.

So the next time your coachee screams “Aaaaaagh! I don’t know!”, partner with them to:

  • Determine what depth of knowledge is appropriate to achieve;
  • Get comfortable with ambiguity;
  • Develop strategies for responding to a question when one doesn’t have an answer.

And the cherry on the cake? Once your coachee completes this brainstorm list, they will be able to make use of a number of options both to keep the discussion moving forward and to look comfortable while presenting in front of a group of people when they don't have an answer.


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