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To Save Face: What You Should Say When You Don’t Know the Answer

April 13, 2018

A leader is not a valedictorian who knows everything, but you might get panicky when your employees throw a question about something related to work you don’t really acquire or understand. While responding honestly by saying “I don’t know” could be a sign of great leader who is able to sincerely admit his shortcoming, the wrong way to say it could make you look like an unprofessional manager. There are good chances that there will be a following question that doubts your credibility such as, “How could you become a leader if you don’t know about this?”

However, you cannot avoid this tough moment nor dodge the stumping question. While it is true that losing words to answer employees’ questions which are out of your expertise could be an embarrassing experience, you can learn from it to improve your knowledge in the future. Here’s how you can save your reputation despite not knowing the answers for employees’ unexpected inquiries:

See also: Steal the Light: How to Grab People’s Attention at a Meeting

Set up a powerful response

Simple response such as ‘I don’t know’ often becomes a conversation ender that stops people from asking further questions. While you could use this to move on to other subjects, this will make you powerless as you cannot demonstrate your reliability in front of the person who asks you. Therefore, you should prepare another expression which has more powerful sense but with same meaning. You can use something like, “That’s actually a good question, but I need more information to answer that,” or “I don’t hold the data at the time, but I will get it to you soon”. By expressing those ways, you show that you have intention to improve yourself without denying your weakness.

Find out the purpose of the questions

People usually ask questions during particular occasions or within specific context. However, there are times when your employees show up and ask you about something out of the blue. At such cases, leaders are often confused not only with the answer, but also the question itself. To get out of the awkward atmosphere, you need to clarify with the employee to find out the purpose of the questions. By doing so, you might get better idea about the topic being talked about and provide the right response.

Don’t play counter-attack

You must have ever seen a scene where someone defends himself strongly in a debate by bringing the argument around and around only to avoid saying “I don’t know”. This kind of person also tends to play counter-attack by throwing counter question to others. This attitude is not necessarily needed to make you look smart or such. Instead of looking cool, people will judge you as an annoying person.

Provide references

When you receive question which is actually not in your scope and you don’t know the answer, you can explain that it is not your area of expertise and give the reference about the right place where the person can ask the question. For example, IT manager can apply this strategy when employee ask about payroll matters, which are totally HR’s affair. Other example is when your boss suddenly asks about an employee who is not in your team, then you can call the right leader to come to the boss. By giving reference, you can prevent additional burden to answer question which is not in your responsibility without letting people’s expectation down from getting the answer.

Next read: A Friendly Boss: Dos and Don’ts in Maintaining Relationship with Employees

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