Effective Leadership Strategy: Admitting What You Don’t Know

Leadership Coaching, Mindset & Mindfulness, Self Awareness
10/14/22 - Betsy Westhoff
team looking at their manager

The second three hardest words to say!

Nope! It’s not “I love you.”

It’s… “I don’t know.”

We’ve all been there. You are wrapping up a presentation, and you have double and triple checked every fact. Seemingly out of the blue someone asks a question that you have never thought of before. What is your prevailing emotion?

  • I’m trapped
  • I look like a fool
  • Why am I never prepared?
  • What will others think of me?

For those of us who have prided ourselves on having the answers, or being creative or resourceful enough to pull answers out of the cosmos when we need them, this is one of the most awkward and stressful situations we encounter at work.

Many of my clients report when they cannot answer on the spot, their imposter syndrome takes over, they feel compelled to make something up that comes back to haunt them later, or they are at a complete loss for words.

What they don’t realize is that not having the answers all the time is actually normal, and can actually demonstrate to others that you have the attributes you need to be a strong and effective leader who can navigate new challenges.

Here are some things to consider when you find yourself without an immediate answer to a question:

  1. Take a moment.

Compose yourself. Decide what is the smartest way to navigate the situation. Consider who else is with you, who asked the question, and how critical it is to find an immediate answer. You can do all of this quickly. Remember, to take a deep breath, then consider the following options.

  1. Ways to navigate this situation.

Option A: Thank the person for their question, clarify that you understand the question, commit to finding an answer, and getting back to the person or group promptly.

Option B: Thank the person for asking the question, and set expectations for your answer by saying, “Based on the facts we have today, this is my perspective…”

  1. What this approach demonstrates.

Option A: Your skills and ability to adapt to unanticipated and unforeseen situations are at least as valuable as your substantive knowledge. This shows you are someone who they can come to and if you don’t know the answer, you will find it out.

Option B: You are responsible, understand context and are confident in your ability to answer any questions that may come up.

Once you have made your follow-up intentions clear, move on. Finish your presentation, ask for questions as you normally would, and re-commit to your promised follow-up. That’s it. No need for apologies!

If you want to explore these ideas further and listen to some real life examples, check out my latest webinar, Effective Leadership Strategy: Admitting What You Don’t Know. We’d love to have you be part of of the conversation!

~ Coach Betsy

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