when you don't knowYou are having a conversation with your team and someone asks a question about the best way forward. You honestly don’t have a clue. Or you might be a trainer and one of the participants asks a tough question and you simply don’t know the answer. What do you say in such a situation? Do you blurt out some vague generalities in the hope that this might do the trick or do you own up to the fact when you don’t know the answer?

As managers, leaders, executives, people in positions of responsibility, we are often expected to and often feel compelled to provide answers to practically everything. Yet the task of a leader is not to know everything or have the best solution in every case. This may be an expectation, it may something we feel we have to live up to but it is simply not possible to have all the answers. Yet the majority of times when we face such situations, we either end up pretending we know and give out incorrect information or we end up feeling incompetent and embarrassed at not knowing. Either way, this results in a loss of credibility.

It is important to realize that there is absolutely no rule that says you have to respond immediately in every situation. In fact, in many cases, it is better to just pause and consider the options available before responding. Here are some strategies on how best to respond in such situations:

1- What Do You Think?

Now you might point to someone else in the group and ask what they think. This provides additional insights about potential responses from the collective intelligence in the group. You may ask someone with particular knowledge in the area to help out with possible answers if that person is around. This is particularly useful in training where you tap into someone’s viewpoint or knowledge.

2- Let’s Brainstorm

This is where you turn the question into a brainstorming activity and get the team to come up with good answers. This provides a baseline to which you can add what you know. Brainstorming can really help with bringing out more ideas and facilitating better ownership of decisions.

3- I Don’t Have the Answers Right Now

Sometime you just have to acknowledge that you are not in a position to provide a good response. So own up and promise to get back to the group with appropriate answers after you have a chance to do some more thinking or research or consultation.

Leadership is not about knowing all the answers; it is about being able to ask the right questions and then getting answers from not just your own knowledge but from the overall collective in question.