Picture this: You’ve been promoted to manager because your supervisors have confidence in your ability to lead and inspire. It feels great! You love helping your direct reports do their best work, and you smile when see that “Director of” title on your business card.
Yet, there’s one situation that your prior experience and those Management 101 books seemed to overlook: what to do when you’re supposed to have answers for your team and, unfortunately, you have no clue.
Although you may feel that you need to give an immediate response every time someone runs into your office with an issue, this is a critical first step to take: Stop. Seriously. Don’t rush to give just any answer. And though it feels tempting, avoid saying “I don’t know.” What feels like a conclusive statement to you actually sounds like ellipses to your team. It leaves them hanging and creates more questions.
When you reach these critical moments, pause, collect yourself, and consider these approaches:
1.“I don’t have the information I need to give an answer. I’ll find it.”
In retrospect, when I’ve said “I don’t know,” it has been because the situation was new—software that I had never used, projects and stakes that I had never encountered. In those moments, though, I could have taken a moment to evaluate the data from past projects that had similar deliverables or challenges.
For example, if the question from a team member is, “How much time should I devote to making this storyboard?” and I’ve never made one myself, I can still be helpful. Rather than saying “I don’t know” or deferring to “Use your best judgment” (which sometimes feels like a cop-out), I can refer to the hours that we’ve tracked for past storyboards and how long clients took to approve them. This gives a range for the expected time and, most importantly, provides guidance and support for the team.
Even if it takes time and research to find the answer, do it. Your team will trust and respect you when they see that you’re committed to helping them.
2. “Let’s have a quick brainstorm.”
The creative process works best when at least two minds can riff of off one another—together, you can often devise more solutions together than were possible separately.
So, take five minutes to connect with your colleagues and run a few exercises (like these) to clear the mental blocks you may be having. Even if your team members are asking you because they’re less familiar with the project or issue than you are, brainstorming can still be effective—in fact, their perspective as “outsiders” may bring fresher thinking. In either case, in addition to creating more options for solutions, you also create more collective ownership of the outcomes among the team.
3.“I know an expert who can help with this.”
Of the three approaches I’m sharing, this is the toughest because you are plainly admitting that someone knows better than you do. But rather than causing concern (or doubt in your abilities) by saying “let’s escalate this,” you’re still showing confidence that an answer can be found.
Senior managers or company advisors with specific knowledge can be great resources. You could even share it with mentors in your own network—remember, they’re not exclusively there for emergencies (this isn’t Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?), but as a “board of directors” for areas in which you’re not as strong.
Remember, no one expects you to know everything. Having a wide pool of resources to draw from when necessary will inspire confidence among your team.
In times of uncertainty, remember that leadership doesn’t mean always having the answers. It means always being committed to finding them.