how can I say “I don’t know” without saying “I don’t know”?

A reader writes:

I am in a scientific field in a project management role. I have been at my company for just over a year and it’s my first job after getting my PhD (I had an entry level position as a bench chemist for three years before going back to grad school). There have been a lot of rearrangements in project assignments since I started. Along with my inexperience within the role and periodically shifting responsibilities, it’s been hard to get a solid grip on how some things are done around here. Overall, though, I feel like I’m doing pretty well, and my manager thinks so, too.

My question is about how to handle myself when I don’t have all of the necessary information. For example, Project X was handled by a project manager who left right after I started here in July 2015 and passed it to another colleague who then left in June 2016. Now I have responsibility for Project X. There is an issue that has come up dealing with a topic from two years ago that I am being asked to handle. I have done as much research as possible, but there are still some knowledge gaps due to 1) my lack of experience in my role, 2) information I don’t have because this occurred before I started, and 3) missing data due to the project being passed around so much.

I was in a conference call and colleagues were pressing me for data that I simply did not have. I ended up explaining that I am new to the project and my predecessor’s predecessor did not keep records of the exact data that they were looking for. I laid out a plan to rectify the issue and got general agreement for the timeline I suggested. I got everyone on the same page and set in motion a plan to solve the problem, though I can’t help but feel like I could have handled it better. To me, admitting that I didn’t have the information they wanted sounds at best like a total cop-out and at worst completely ignorant. Is there a better way to handle this type of situation? I’ve had coworkers warn me about asking too many questions or admitting I don’t know something because people will think I’m not fit for my position.

In any job, there are going to be times when you don’t know something. Acknowledging that — and saying that you’ll find out and circle back, when that’s a possibility — is far, far better than trying to bluff your way through or risking giving inaccurate information.

In fact, one of the things that people who are great at their work and widely respected have in common is that they’re willing to say “I don’t know.” It actually makes them look more confident and credible because they’re secure in their overall competence and standing, and they know that they don’t have to (and can’t) have every single answer.

I’m curious about these coworkers who are telling you that admitting you don’t know something will reflect badly on you. Are they inexperienced themselves? Not terribly respected? Or tipping you off to some dysfunctional aspect of your company culture? The only other likely option would be that you in fact aren’t prepared with info that someone in your role should be expected to have and they’re telling you that inartfully, but it would still be pretty bad advice — because what do they think you should do, bluff? There’s no faster way to destroy your credibility if the bluff doesn’t work.

Generally, the best thing to do when you don’t know something is to be straightforward. These are all good things to say when that happens:
* “That’s a good question, and I don’t actually know. Let me find out and get back to you.”
* “You know, I’m not sure. I think it might be X, but I can’t say with certainty. I’ll find out.”
* In the example you gave where your predecessor didn’t keep the data in question: “This is something I’ve been trying to figure out, but previously we didn’t keep data on this. We’re going to track it going forward, but unfortunately it means we don’t have answers to questions like that yet.”

Straightforward, not defensive, not BS’ing anyone.

If you played it any differently — avoided the question, took your best guess and later turned out to be wrong, or otherwise weren’t up-front — people would notice. And generally people will really be Not Pleased by that approach. (That’s especially true with guessing! When you’re guessing, you have to be clear that it’s a guess, or people may act on the potentially wrong information you’ve just provided.)

And if you feel like you’re having to say “I don’t know” more than you’re comfortable with, you can always check with your boss about it. It’s totally reasonable to say something like, “I’m getting a lot of questions that I don’t know the answer to, like X and Y. Is that pretty much what you’d expect, or should I be able to answer those sorts of things by now?”

But really, it’s pretty normal not to know the answers to everything people ask you.

{ 105 comments… read them below }

  1. Jubilance*

    OP, I’m surprised you’re getting feedback about this, because I would have handled this the same way. Do you have a weird corporate culture that maybe skewing the advice you’re receiving? Is your manager known for reprimanding people for not knowing the answer to every question.

    Given the history of your project and your newness in role, I can’t imagine they want anything more from you.

    1. Katie*

      OP here. My manager is actually very wonderful and understanding about this topic; it’s my peers that aren’t. The other 4 people who have my same role have all been here 25+ years, and they just aren’t used to someone not knowing what to do. Sometimes when I will ask one of them a question, they give me this baffled look because they can’t understand how I don’t know something so simple. Once they realize that I haven’t encountered it before, they’ll explain it to me, but often with some disdain. It’s a really frustrating situation.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        I’m sorry, but those people are kind of ridiculous. With any luck, they will get over it just as you are no longer quite so new. (Not that a year is that new! But if everyone else has been there 25+, I can see where it seems that way.)

      2. Lora*

        Ohhhh gotcha. That’s definitely their problem, not yours. They’ve been doing things with tribal knowledge for so long that they don’t even realize they are doing it – it’s like knowing how to tie your shoelaces, it doesn’t really occur to you that other people wouldn’t know because you learned so long ago you don’t remember learning. That’s also why there will likely be zero documentation and you’ll have to parse a lot of BS from reality. Which sucks, I’m sorry.

        In the “it’s stupid but it works” bag of tricks, I use the Dale Carnegie How To Win Friends and Influence People technique on folks like that. You lower your voice conspiratorially, ask if someone can help you with their wealth of expertise, be over-the-top grateful. Gush about how much you’d like to learn from them, even if they are dumb as a box of rocks and really you just need to know which filepath something is saved to.

        1. Clytemnestra Stein*

          I’m not sure if OP should be over-the-top grateful. I get where you’re coming from, but if they already seem a bit “off” on the not-knowing, the gushing is going to make them very uncomfortable and possibly make them think OP is dumber than he/she is. It also screams fake and insincere (and from the work scenario described, just would not go over well). I think being just normal grateful is fine – ask them plainly and pleasantly (no need to whisper, that just makes it seem like she/he doesn’t want people to know they don’t know something and nothing will inflame office gossip more), and then appropriately thanking them: “Thanks so much!”

          As for the disdain, OP will just have to learn how best to ignore and weather it gracefully. I’m currently in a job where I have gotten my fair share of unwarranted disdain, and I think everyone has to figure out their own “zen” method of letting it roll off and not caring while continuing to be pleasant and approachable. (I’ve tried to teach people how I do it, but now I really don’t think it translates like that. Everyone has to find their own way.) It feels awkward as hell for a bit, but you’ll get it.

          Note: My own personal way that allowed me to start “getting it” was to pretend I was Cora from Downton Abbey. She is the queen of understated composure and confidence when others are being rude! And she does it with such warmth!

          1. Snork Maiden*

            See, my Zen comes from the Dowager Countess. Internally I draw myself up to my full height, peer through my lorgnette, and say, “What is a ‘week-end’?”

        2. Vicki*

          Ugh. Don’t try that trick with people like me. We not only see through it, we won’t respect you in the morning.

      3. Roza*

        OP, your company sounds a lot like mine (especially the disorganization combined with disdain from people to whom everything is obvious because they’ve been doing it forever. This was until recently also combined with a deep belief that people straight out of school are idiots who can’t be trusted, and every question someone asked was proof of the uselessness of new grads. Luckily the worst offender on that front left ). I’m also a PhD in a first real-world job, maybe it’s a research thing?

        I don’t have anything to add to the advice already given, but wanted to offer hugs–the combo of no organization/documentation (which makes it inefficient at best and impossible at worst to answer your own questions) and people who judge you for asking questions is incredibly frustrating. Since the aforementioned person left things have gotten a little better here and the company is actively working to develop workflows and a basic folder organizational system (I guess since old person is gone we can now acknowledge that her “system” is best described as a lack thereof ), but the whole thing has left a really sour taste in my mouth.

      4. Jubilance*

        Ahh, so it is your culture, the culture being “we’ve all been here for years & don’t understand that someone is new & learning”. That sucks and I’m sorry you have coworkers that aren’t more understanding.

      5. Murphy*

        Ah, ok, that explains it. You work with jerks. Unintentional jerks maybe, but jerks nonetheless.

        When I encounter that I’m usually pretty upfront about “hey, I know you’ve done this thing a million times before, but I haven’t. Would you mind helping me out?” (with potentially more nuanced language – although I’m sometimes Ms. Blunt) Sometimes reminding them that they had to learn this once too can be super helpful.

      6. Lana Kane*

        Your update makes sense, because that whole “don’t ever say you don’t know” thing is pretty old-fashioned advice. That, and they have been there so long that they don’t even realize that they probably have a lot of institutional knowledge, which they mistake for common knowledge. Pretty much, they have forgotten what it’s like to be new.

        I think it might be worthwhile to remember that the next time you ask them something, and frame it as though you are tapping into their vast experience. People like to be flattered, more than they like to give you side-eye for not knowing something!

      7. Teapot project manager*

        I think they are being jerks. I’ve been with my company over 25 years and I try to explain things and I will apologize if I forget someone new won’t have a piece of knowledge and miss telling them something.

        I also frequently will have to say “I don’t know but let me find out and get back to you”

      8. Yup*

        Absolutely agree with Jubilance and Alison that your response to that question was exactly what you should have done, and no one could ask for more. Your peers expecting you to divine knowledge you couldn’t possibly yet possess need some perspective! But you know that already.

        My actual suggestion relates to the vulnerability you may feel about saying “I don’t know” (though I agree with Alison that it’s fine to utter those words!). If it feels better to you, you might say something like this instead: “let me check and get back to you on that.” That way, you’re not exposing yourself quite as much to a potential judgment of “OMG she doesn’t know!!!!” — though in truth we typically judge ourselves much harder than do others.

        You might use the same formula for coworkers: “just to check, what’s the process for […]?”

        Please know you’re doing all the right things, though! Good luck!!!

      9. Marisol*

        Are your peers consciously or unconsciously trying to intimidate you? Can you call them out when they explain things to you disdainfully, e.g., say politely, “you seem irritated. Have I done something to annoy you?” I’ve found that sometimes saying something like that will be enough to make the person realize their error and stop, whether out of goodwill or, if they’re a bully, because THEY will feel intimidated by your forthrightness and back down.

  2. Beancounter Eric*

    What I learned very early is that “I don’t know” is generally unacceptable – Much more acceptable is “I don’t know, but I’ll find out”, combined with exactly that – getting an answer to the question. For the future: it can be a good idea to have an idea of the commonly asked questions you face, and to try to have a relatively quick answer available.

    The unfortunate fact is that in some environments, not having the right answer right then will be used against you, regardless of the circumstances. (See “Politics – Workplace”)

    1. BuildMeUp*

      +100

      As long as you’re coupling the “I don’t know” with next steps or assurances that you’re going to find out the answer, I think in most situations you’ll be fine.

    2. Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

      +200. Yes. Don’t just say “I don’t know”. Always follow it with “but I will find out and get back to you” and actually do that.

    3. Lemon Zinger*

      Well said!

      I am always so afraid of admitting that I don’t know the answer to things. My boss is good at making me feel like an idiot. :/

    4. Sketchee*

      In most cases I find I’m confident in saying the truth. If the fact is that I don’t have the answer yet, share it and make a plan.

      If they don’t like the facts of the situation, that’s worth considering sometimes. And not much I can do except move forward.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      An addendum to this: Sometimes finding out would be hugely time-consuming. In that case it’s fine to say, “I think it might be a bit of a project to find out because of X and Y, but would you like me to see if I can?”

      I definitely don’t want someone spending hours looking for the answer to something without confirming with me first that it’s warranted.

      1. Trix*

        I totally agree. “I don’t know” shouldn’t be the complete sentence, but what comes after will depend on the situation.

      2. Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

        Agreed. I would see what I could find out and if it seems as if getting the answer is more involved than I thought it would be, I would get back to the person tell them that. I would give them whatever info I found out and suggest to them where and how to get the rest of it. But never, ever say just say “I don’t know” and leave it at that. Because it also sounds like you don’t care.

      3. C Average*

        I’ve occasionally used “no one has ever asked me that before!” in that situation, to underscore that they’re asking an unusual question that so far hasn’t interested anyone else. In particular, this has been my go-to when someone higher up is asking a question that suggests that they think we’re gathering data that we aren’t in fact collecting.

    6. Joseph*

      It’s worth noting that if the question is likely to lead to further questions (as many inquires do), than you need to either figure out likely follow-up questions and pre-plan your responses OR loop in the person who’s actually the expert in this subject to help you out.
      You don’t want to go “I don’t know but I’ll find out”, answer one question, then be left stumped again at a reasonable follow-up.

    7. Lana Kane*

      I learned this early on in my work life. I had a very entry level job years ago, and sometimes the owner of the business would call my area with a question. I got feedback from my supervisor that the owner gave her – he said he was impressed with me not just because I could almost always answer his questions, but when I didn’t know I would say “I don’t know, but I will find out for you.” And I always did. He appreciated that enough to mention it to my supervisor and it stuck with me. It has served me well over the years.

    8. MillersSpring*

      “I’m still gathering information on that.”
      “That’s something I’ll need to research.”
      “I haven’t had to learn that yet, so I need a bit of guidance.”
      “Who should be my resource to make sure I follow the correct process?”
      “I wish I could download all of your years of experience with our processes!”
      Make sure that you come off as conscientious–maybe let them see you diligently writing or typing notes on the issue.

    9. Jennifer*

      Yeah, unfortunately I have to second that. Except you need to drop “I don’t know” ENTIRELY, just say “Let me get back to you after I check with my supervisor” or whatever.

    10. MC*

      Also, “I don’t know but I’ll start with . Is there anyone else you think who might have this information?” I like this as a start because it says you can and are willing to do the legwork, but not spin in your seat because “everyone” knows that Joe has the information and you’ve never met Joe and don’t know what he’s responsible for.

    11. Marisol*

      I think “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” indicates an attitude of service, which is great if that is what you want to convey. If my boss asks me for info, I will definitely say that I’ll get him the info. If a peer or someone I don’t report to asks me, I might just leave it at “I don’t know.” This is an issue of “status,” and it depends on what message you want to send.

    12. stevenz*

      I think LW is talking about the questions out of left field, not the FAQs. In those workplaces that tell you you can’t say I don’t know, it’s a political thing with management who want to give a surface impression of “high performance”. It’s not only unrealistic, it’s counter-productive.

      Of course the response does not comprise “I don’t know” followed by a vacant stare. It goes with saying – in the LW’s post – that there is follow up, and that follow up is an opportunity to improve one’s skills while showing a good customer service attitude. Alison’s response is very good guidance.

  3. justsomeone*

    My experience has been that using phrases like Alison’s scripts generally goes over well. Alison’s scripts are nearly identical to phrases I hear pretty often around my office.

  4. Myrin*

    I second the notion that admitting you don’t know something can actually seem very positive to your audience!

    I experienced this a couple of years ago with a professor whose lecture I attended. When she didn’t know the answer to a question a student asked, she would say something to the effect of: “Oh, I don’t actually know that. I can imagine it might have been X and Y, but I can’t say for sure. Let me write it down so I can get the information and pass it along to you next lesson.”. And without fail, she did.

    I even remember mentioning this in her end-of-semester evaluation because I was so impressed by this and it was actually somewhat unique. Because the thing is, even if you don’t know the answer to something yourself, you can still very often tell if someone is just grasping for straws and bullshitting their way through some weirdly inflated answer consisting of nothing but hot air and it can become quite annoying – I really do prefer someone just admit they have no idea!

    1. Mimmy*

      even if you don’t know the answer to something yourself, you can still very often tell if someone is just grasping for straws and bullshitting their way through some weirdly inflated answer consisting of nothing but hot air and it can become quite annoying

      Ohh yes, I see this a lot in retail.

      1. Sarah*

        I *did* this a lot in retail, lol. There are quite a lot of customers who have the same attitude toward “I don’t know, but let me check” as the OP’s coworkers.

        1. anon.*

          My first retail job, someone asked me for something and I smiled SUPER cheerfully and said, “I honestly have no idea, this is my first day here! But if you wait right here I will absolutely run and go get my supervisor and ask her, and I’m sure we’ll be able to help you.”

          Dude was completely blindsided, haha. I don’t think I’ve ever confused someone so much in my life.

    2. the gold digger*

      I had an interview with McKinsey when I was in grad school. They asked me a question to which my answer was, “I don’t know.”

      What I learned is that for that kind of job, they do want someone who can BS and make things up.

      I am not that person.

      PS In hindsight, I should have said something like, “I don’t have the exact answer, but here is how I would go about figuring it out.” What they are really looking for is your process. But again – if they want someone who is smooth and confident in front of clients even during uncertainty, I am not that person.

      1. Myrin*

        I’m actually extremely good at bullshitting convincingly (and I’m also someone who can pull of being smooth and confident even in times of uncertainty), but I find it frustrating and dishonest (even in myself and when done intentionally). I use this when I just want some random person to leave me alone and go away but I’ve never done it when, for example, teaching a class myself because my priority is students having the correct information, not my appearing smart. But I’m very sure there are others who don’t see it that way.

      2. College Career Counselor*

        Let me guess–was it case study questions? They are definitely looking for your process for those (and the questions you ask). But, yeah, the answer to “how many ping pong balls can you put in an airplane” by itself is kind of silly. (What kind of plane? Passenger or cargo? Are the ping pong balls loose or packed in something? Are they going to be transported somewhere? Can you crush them or do they need to arrive intact?)

        1. the gold digger*

          Yes, it was! “What is the market for windshield wipers in the US?”

          (NB The proper way to answer that question is to say, “The population of the US is XMM. Assuming that there are X cars per Y Americans and replacing the wipers is required about once every 18 months, then the market would be ZMM windshield wipers a year.)

          (I am too embarrassed to tell you what my answer was. I am really not that dumb.)

          Now that I have been working for years, understand what they were seeking, and have been reading AAM for years, I would have been able to give an estimate and show my process with confidence. But then? No way.

          Even if I had known, I still think I would have been a crummy consultant. I like to have solid research and data to back up what I present. I am not good on the fly.

      3. Lora*

        Smooth being the key word – McKinsey doesn’t take it kindly when you tell them bluntly, no, you are wrong, you re-invented the wheel here and your hypothetical relies on incorrect assumptions.

        I am not a McKinsey person either. Confident, yes – smooth, nope.

  5. Allison*

    When I was younger, it didn’t occur to me to say “I don’t know, but let me go find out!” when a customer asked me something I wasn’t sure of. It got me into trouble twice, once with a very angry lady yelling at me and going “I don’t like your attitude right now!” and a few years later a man immediately got mad and demanded to speak to my manager. It’s not something they ever cover when training minimum wage people, we were expected to just know what to do in those situations.

    1. paul*

      Minimum wage retail work is horrible in that regard. You have a subset of people wanting top end ultra-trained staff that know everything about everything, but who are unwilling to spend the money to support that training. Hated doing that back in college. No, I don’t know everything about every product this big box retailer sales; it’s literally impossible!

    2. Moonsaults*

      Depending on how long that job lasted you, only two customers being upset about the response is not that bad of turnout. When working with the general public, your ratio is usually much higher if you’re actually doing anything truly wrong.

      I remember the complaints I’ve gotten over the years and most of them are so far fetched and obnoxious personalities that I just got them off my back and immediately disregarded their advice to change my manner of speaking that had set them off. Everyone else who wasn’t those couple people were always telling me I was wonderful, helpful and the best because saying “I don’t know but will find out somehow for you” is the only way to react in many situations handed to you, especially running into so many questions you cannot have answers to all of them!

  6. Ayla K*

    I keep a quote pinned on my desk that says, “If someone asks you a question that you don’t know the answer to, just admit it and save everyone some time.” My manager’s manager saw it one day, pointed at it, and just yelled “YES.”

    I used to just come up with what *seemed* like the right answer for things that I never had access to/never was involved in (projects that occurred before I was hired, decisions made by people who had since left.) and I realized how much trouble that could cause in the long run. People could be basing big-deal reports off numbers you’re guesstimating – it happened to me!

    I think Allison’s advice is spot-on: it’s okay to admit that you don’t know something as long as you acknowledge that you’re doing everything reasonably in your power to find the answer.

  7. harryv*

    I think OP answered it exactly how he / she should. On top of this, OP can go an extra step to ensure proper documentation and centralizing the data so everyone will know how to access it. In most if not all of my project notes, I have the location of where the data / project is stored so they know how to access it. It’ll avoid people having to come to me direct to ask for progress each and every time.

  8. LQ*

    I agree with Eric that “I don’t know but I’ll find out” is the acceptable version.

    I say it a lot. Most people say it a lot here. The people who don’t say it are generally…not well regarded, because they get stuff wrong a lot.

    Hopefully, the people giving the advice were talking about the way it is presented. A shrug with an “I don’t know” is very different from “Oh that’s a very good question, I’ll figure it out and get back to you.”

    I say some variation of I don’t know to a lot more questions than I did at the start of my career or than when I started at current job. It isn’t that the amount of information I know is less, it is that I’m asked much more complex questions, much more often, and are more likely to require research.

  9. Trout 'Waver*

    If you’re a project manager, most of the data you work with is generated by other people. If possible, go talk to those people to get up to speed. Also, if there are gaps or holes in the project, you may have throw the thing out and start over. Or triage what you have. I also do some project management in a science field, and have inherited albatross projects before. I had to quickly determine what was useful and what wasn’t.

    Also, you’re given more leeway with projects like that, especially when you first take them over. Everyone knows it’s been passed around a couple times.

    One final note: It can be hard to make the transition from academia to industry, and doubly so into project management. Have you considered any courses in project management? Dealing with uncertainty is a constant in project management and is a topic that is often covered in depth.

    1. Katie*

      OP here. I’ve been meeting with as many people as I can to get up to speed with all of the projects I currently manage. With this project, like you stated, since we have such a big gap we’re just going to start from scratch, but the approach I suggested will get us a better method in the end. I don’t like re-doing all of the work, but sometimes that’s better than struggling to fill in the holes.

      Thank you for your suggestion about taking a course in project management. Internal training at my company is practically non-existent. Can you recommend a place I can look into take some courses?

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        I have taken a couple courses on PM at NC State’s continuing education program that were very good. They’re offered online as well, but I prefer in-class instruction. They have a certificate program, but you can take the classes a al carte as well.

        Also, since you’re in a scientific field, you should look into short courses at national meetings.

        https://onece.ncsu.edu/public/category/courseCategoryCertificateProfile.do?method=load&certificateId=23580

      2. Clever Name TBD*

        My degree required a Project+ Cert through CompTIA. It covered the basics of project management and might be a good place to start. Full disclosure: I am not in project management and others might have better suggestions.

      3. the_scientist*

        Most colleges and universities should offer project management courses that are accredited by the PMI. Healthcare tends to like lean/six sigma, I think, but any fundamentals of project management course that follows the PMBOK should be a good starting point. I took a 1-semester fundamentals course that was incredibly useful, and I learned a lot from it, although it wasn’t cheap. Usually they have certificate programs where you take 3-5 courses to get a certification, but if you’re interested in writing the PMP eventually, you actually only need 39 credit hours, which is one semester, so the certification isn’t all that useful.

  10. lionelrichiesclayhead*

    In my last job, which was client facing, I was repeatedly told that I was the best account manager a client had ever had not because I knew everything but because I always followed up on things I didn’t know about. My client never had to worry about getting an answer on something because they knew I was handling it and they didn’t care if I didn’t know it off the top of my head.

    In my experience, and as others have said, people generally don’t care if you don’t know something but they do care when you say you’ll do something and then don’t do it.

  11. Ann Furthermore*

    Excellent advice. The only thing I would add is that when you tell someone you’ll find out the answer to their question, make sure you do track down the answer and then follow up with them later. It’s when people never get any answers that you start looking like you have no idea what you’re doing. If it’s taking longer than you anticipated to track down information, communicate that too, so that the person knows you haven’t forgotten about them, or blown them off.

  12. Ayla K*

    I keep a quote pinned above my desk that says, “If someone asks you a question that you don’t know the answer to, just admit it and save everyone some time.” My manager’s manager saw it, pointed at it, and just said, “YES!”

    I used to try to come up with the “closest possible” answers for things that I couldn’t possibly know (projects that occurred before I started, decisions made by people who have since left) and it took me a while to realize how dangerous that can be. People might be putting together big-deal proposals based on numbers that you guesstimate – it happened to me! It’s also okay to admit that you haven’t heard of a specific program or aren’t familiar with a certain concept.

    I think Allison’s advice is spot-on. It’s absolutely okay to admit that you don’t know something, just make sure you follow up by saying that you’re doing everything reasonably within your power to find the answer.

  13. themmases*

    IME this is normal in research. It’s common for someone on a team to leave and either not be very reachable, or not able to be that helpful about a technical detail from a year before. They could be great at documentation, but the information that is critical to you now could have been quite minor back then.

    All you can really do is consult the contacts and documentation that are available to you, use your best judgment, and tell people that’s what you’re doing. To normal people there is no apology needed; you can’t read the mind of someone who worked there two years ago.

    I’m sure this issue is not unique to the sciences, it’s just what I know. Only extremely clueless and demanding people were difficult about this as long as you were clear that it was before your time and you were trying to find out.

    1. Mimmy*

      Nope – I’d say this occurs in every field. I used to work at a nonprofit providing community resource information, which often means that no two questions were identical. Sure, there were certainly common themes to callers’ situations, but there were times when I was at a loss as to what answer to give.

    2. the_scientist*

      While I’m sure it’s not unique to the sciences, in my experience this issue is compounded in the sciences because you are surrounded by people who make their living and their reputations as experts in their field. Scientists can be loathe to admit that they don’t know something, and might expect the same from their employees, even when it’s obvious (or should be obvious) that the person they’re asking won’t have that knowledge.

      Plus, in my experience, there’s a disconnect in large organizations between the staff and the scientists, if that makes sense. Like, in my organization, the scientists have NO idea what my day-to-day work entails. They have no idea what I know or don’t know, and what is my responsibility vs. someone else’s responsibility. My job is likely very similar to the OP’s in that I have subject matter expertise (I am an epidemiologist, working in the field) but I do a lot of project management. I often am expected to brief the scientists I work with on projects, and they often ask me detailed technical questions about methodologies, like for example the diagnostic billing codes used to identify a particular condition. I didn’t develop the methodology, so if it’s not in the technical documentation, I don’t know…..and it’s actually not really my responsibility to know because we have an entire analytics department that knows the answer. If I can’t answer a question, I always offer to follow up and find out, but often the scientists do get frustrated because they want the answer right away and I can’t give it to them.

      It is frustrating for me, because nobody likes feeling incompetent or being put on the spot, but in my situation, my boss always has my back and makes it clear when something is either above my paygrade or the responsibility of another team. So, OP- what does your boss say about this? Are you worried about being thrown under the bus at all?

  14. Clever Name*

    I’m a scientist in a consulting firm, and I was literally just asked a question for some information I didn’t have an immediate answer to, and my response was, “I’m not sure off the top of my head, but I just worked on a project that involved that so let me look it up and get back to you.” I looked it up and had her an accurate answer like a minute later.

  15. thunderbird*

    When I worked in academia, I was in a similar position where I inherited some abandoned projects and was actually in a field a bit outside of my expertise. My boss hated the answer “I don’t know” even coupled with, I will find out and get right back to you. But my boss was also a terrible hands off manager, who didn’t communicate and just expected you to know everything, even things (like meetings/appointments that you were never informed of and had no way of accessing that information). So if “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” is not good enough, it’s probably an unrealistic expectation on their part.

  16. Lora*

    Been there! Agree 100% with Alison here.

    “I don’t know but I’ll find out”
    “Let me speak with the subject matter expert and get back to you”
    “I’ll need to do some research, I don’t have the information at hand but I’ll get back to you by (day)”
    “hmm, when do you need this information by?”
    “I don’t know that personally but the right person to talk to is Joe Schmo, let me give you his contact information”

    The most useful thing for you to do is to be very very friendly and meet as many people in your organization and learn what they do, what they did before they came to this organization, and how they can help you. In grad school you tend to be very isolated, working like mad on your project. This is generally not the case in industry, projects require a much broader range of expertise than one human brain can contain. We don’t expect you to know everything, although we do expect you to have enough initiative to find things out somewhat.

    1. Clever Name*

      I think the second point is a big one if you’re managing projects that involve areas outside your area of expertise. At my company, we have projects that involve at least half a dozen different areas, and it’s typical for the PM to not be well-versed in every one of them. As a SME, I often field questions from PMs that a client asked them.

    2. Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

      +1000. Be very friendly and always find out who does what within the organization. And also learn all you can about other areas in the organization. Every time I learn something new, I write it down in my Handy, Dandy notebook.

  17. Admin of Sys*

    Definitely sounds like you’re doing due diligence in finding the information you don’t know! But for cultures that dislike ‘I don’t know’ as an answer, another good variant is to offer the data surrounding the issue and explain the gap (and perform root cause analysis if you can, on why the data is missing). So instead of saying “I don’t know how many teapots we made last year, but I’m doing x to find out and y to keep that from happening again” you can say “Because the automated teapot counter went offline without folks noticing, and there wasn’t a manual teapot inventory that we can find, I don’t have teapot numbers right now (though I’m still looking). But I’ve implemented an alert on the teapot counter and have developed a process for inventory audits to keep this from happening again.” You need to be careful not to sound like you’re shifting the blame, but it sounds like there aren’t the best processes on tracking the information to begin with, which can be solved going forward.

    As to not asking questions, it sounds like your company might have a culture of ‘figure it out yourself’ but that only ever takes folks so far. If you come at it with something like “I’ve got a and b, but am having trouble figuring out c” that can sound better than “I don’t know how to get c” It can also help the folks answering the questions, since they know you don’t need help on a or b.

    1. AtrociousPink*

      “I don’t know, but….” is the way to go. Honesty first and always. If you don’t know, it’s disrespectful, and sometimes dangerous, to indicate otherwise. And you can almost always come up with something at least marginally helpful to say after the “but.”

      1. SevenSixOne*

        IME, saying “I don’t know, but [best guess]” is much better than “It’s [best guess] probably, but I’m not certain” because lots of people stop listening after the first half of your answer.

        Leading with “I don’t know” also reduces the likelihood of the asker coming back to someone else with “well SHE said [best guess], and that was disastrously wrong!”

    2. hugseverycat*

      One way of saying “I don’t know” without actually saying “I don’t know” is “That’s a great question.” For example, “That’s a great question. I will consult with X and have that answer for you next time we meet”.

  18. Mimmy*

    Great topic Alison – I wish this was around when I was a teapot resource specialist in 2007-2008, though I have always known that you don’t just say “I don’t know”. My problem was how I think I’ve conveyed that uncertainty, and is a point I want to address:

    Because the variety of questions and situations callers presented was nearly limitless, I wasn’t always sure that I was giving the right answer / suggestion. I’m not sure about the callers, but my coworkers and manager could tell I was anxious, even if I was saying “I don’t know” in the right ways. And that is Not Good.

    Moral of the story: It is important to show that you’re comfortable in not knowing the answer off the top of your head and that you know how you will find the answer. <—- I think I should tape this to my forehead, lol.

  19. Tim C.*

    It is also possible the OP received poor employee training. Sure they told him where the restroom was and where to park. However he did not know to place a “TPS” prefix on the TPS reports emailed to coding for them to be properly filed or that project expenses need to be submitted weekly on Tuesdays before 3 pm or that orders for reagents need to be 2 weeks in advance etc…. They probably believe a PhD should just know all of this stuff, especially about project X. If it has been passed around as much as you say, it is quite possible the data is flawed anyway. I would salvage any research data you believe is 100% accurate and then ask your management to restart project X from there. Integrity of the research is vital.

    1. Katie*

      OP here. Aside from general lab safety (which I also received in undergrad, my first job, grad school), I was given zero formal training. The way the company operates it’s all supposed to be OTJ training. So I’ve been told that the only way to learn is to ask questions as I go, but concurrently warned that if I ask to many questions that people will question my abilities. It’s been a rather frustrating year.

      I’ve been doing as you suggested: taking what data I can and rebuilding what is missing or creating what was never there. In a way it’s nice because I can make these projects my own.

      1. Lora*

        Oh boy. OK. There is such a thing as formal project management training. My current employer uses ESI International – they do classes all over the place. See if you can attend one of their courses, they are generally pretty helpful, and they have plenty of Project Management 101 type classes that can be either in person or online – PMI’s are $300-400 each for online, and it’s about a week’s worth of instruction.

        If all you can get is some books to read, I would recommend the following:
        PMBOK guide, from the Project Management Institute
        Project Management by Timothy Short

        Once you’ve done some reading, practice making a Work Breakdown Structure and figuring out critical paths and float time. Then you can categorize people you’ve met at your company as Subject Matter Experts, and only ask them things within their range of expertise – so you aren’t asking any one person too many questions.

  20. Edith*

    Learning to delegate ‘I don’t know’ questions is a really valuable skill. When I first started at my current job I had a coworker Betty (who actually let me believe she was my direct supervisor for over a year, but that’s a whole other can of worms…) who I could always ask a question and she would get back to me with the answer. I found out later if it was something she didn’t know she would drop everything and spend the next hour or afternoon or however long it took tracking down the answer for me. Then of course when our boss would ask her why she wasn’t getting her work done she would say “Edith asked me to find this out for her!”

    After Betty left and I was the person new employees would ask questions I found myself feeling guilty for saying things like “I’m not sure, but it’s probably in such-and-such manual” or “Janice handles those accounts. She would probably know the answer to that.” And then I realized that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work. My “I don’t know” answers weren’t me shrugging my shoulders and refusing to help, and they weren’t me fobbing off work to another person. No, they were me pointing the question-asker in the direction of an answer I didn’t have. It sounds really obvious, but it took me longer than I care to admit to figure it out.

    I blame Betty.

  21. Em Too*

    I’m a fan of “I don’t know, but…”, as in “I don’t know how many teapots we have, but we have 587 brewing devices in total”. It’s nearly always a good enough answer, means they don’t have to wait & wonder, and I have one less thing to follow up on.

    I managed someone who used to respond to queries with things he thought were probably true. I ran through the possible consequences of that, and then he didn’t do it any more.

  22. Roza*

    OP, your company sounds a lot like mine (especially the disorganization combined with disdain from people to whom everything is obvious because they’ve been doing it forever. This was until recently also combined with a deep belief that people straight out of school are idiots who can’t be trusted, and every question someone asked was proof of the uselessness of new grads. Luckily the worst offender on that front left ). I’m also a PhD in a first real-world job, maybe it’s a research thing?

    I don’t have anything to add to the advice already given, but wanted to offer hugs–the combo of no organization/documentation (which makes it inefficient at best and impossible at worst to answer your own questions) and people who judge you for asking questions is incredibly frustrating. Since the aforementioned person left things have gotten a little better here and the company is actively working to develop workflows and a basic folder organizational system (I guess since old person is gone we can now acknowledge that her “system” is best described as a lack thereof ), but the whole thing has left a really sour taste in my mouth.

  23. Dynamic Beige*

    If you admit that you don’t know something/need clarification/have to check — only someone completely unreasonable will have a problem with that. Far better than giving a whole bunch of people a really bad shock when they find out later what you’ve said or promised that they don’t know/can’t deliver on in the time frame you’ve committed them to.

  24. Chriama*

    My go-to answer is always “I’ll confirm that and get back to you.” Sometimes I’ll say “I’ll let you know if it’s not true, but right now I believe ‘x’ is the correct answer.” I almost never say yes to anything up front, there are always caveats and double-checking. I think that if you work with a lot of phDs there might be an academia-type mindset where you need to be right or more right than the person next to you. Or if you’re on the technical side and working with a lot of business people then you feel like you should be the technical SME because if you aren’t, then who is. But at the end of the day everyone is human, and we accept that about each other. It’s fine to say you don’t know and refer people to the actual SME or promise to get back to them with the answer. It sounds like you did everything right and are more worried about looking like you’re dodging responsibility (e.g. my predecessor didn’t track that information feels like a cop-out) but if you have a track record of being reliable and getting people the information they need in a reasonable timeline then it doesn’t matter if you know it as soon as they ask or a day later.

  25. paul*

    I’ve had to do that. I took over my current job in 2011, as an internal promotion. I’d been with them since 2007.

    Back in 2006, they had a massive loss of data and apparently weren’t tech savvy enough to have offsite backups.

    The first week in my new position, I was asked for data covering FY 2004-2005. Guess what I had to tell them?

    It certainly got a bit heated, but if you don’t have the data, you don’t have it–and remind them that you’re better off not having it than pulling it out of thin air.

  26. Moonsaults*

    As someone who fell into a role where my boss developed dementia, literally locking information inside his brain that he never shared with me because there was no need for it until it was too late, I understand your situation on another level all together.

    Your peers having issues dealing with someone being new and not all knowing is their own special garbage issue. You are doing everything right, you are not just saying “I don’t know, let’s forget about that all together” you are coming up with a process to get the information even if it takes awhile to get back to them on that later. That’s reasonable and shows you are actually very good at your job because you are a problem solver when handed over a project with holes you have to fill in.

    Don’t lie and don’t beat around the bush, you will get caught on those and look even worse in the scheme of things. This is a temporary issue for you, you will learn more and this will be behind you, so they can get over themselves and the fact they don’t remember being ‘new’ to a job.

  27. James*

    It sounds like you handled this extraordinarily well–you admitted the limits of your own knowledge, gave the reasons for it (I cannot express my dislike for being handed a project midway through and needing to sort through someone else’s files; I definitely feel your pain!!!), and most importantly gave them a solution to the problem. It shows tha while you don’t know, you KNOW that you don’t know and you have already taken positive steps to rectify the problem. In my experience, this generally turns the conversation from “How can you not know this?” to “Here’s my take on how to best fix it”–in other words, it switches the focus of the discussion from you personally to the methods, a much more productive topic for discussion!

    I’m also a scientist in the corporate world, and I see some bad warning flags in your letter regarding this project and how people are handling it. Projects I’ve been on that get passed around a lot suffer from very serious data quality issues. When projects start rotating through staff fast, it usually means the project is horrible in some way. It’s either under-staffed, over-staffed, the conditions are horrible, or something else is just wrong. This is a pretty serious management issue–both in terms of managing the folks doing the work, and in terms of creating an environment where the folks can work. There are also, as you have found, issues related to transferring data–very few people, even among scientists, enact sufficient data collection, tracking, and processing protocols to allow someone else to step in easily. There’s usually a slew of errors related to such transfers (if you hear “I thought you did X” that’s a sign those errors are occurring). My advice in that situation is to take ownership of it, make the data yours. Guard it like a dragon guards its hoard. If someone touches it, do a thorough quality control check of what they did–or better yet, have them provide the data and YOU input it into your tracking and processing system. (Or assign someone to this task–delegation is always allowed, with oversight.) I know this sounds harsh, but you’ve already suffered some pretty serious consequences of folks not doing that. The goal is to do the best you can with what you’ve got, implement improved methods moving forward s that folks can tell when you started by the improved data quality, and take those lessons into the next project (or implement them immediately on your other projects). I’ve been through that process. It sucks. You annoy people. But in the end, you have a good product, where as without taking these steps your product will be unacceptable.

    In situations where I DO have to guess (say, I have to make an estimate but don’t have all the data), I am religious about documenting my assumptions. Not as a CYA measure, but because that way someone can point to Assumption 3 and say “No, that’s 6 folks taking samples, not 4”, and I can rapidly edit my response. It’s a way to clearly delineate your uncertainty without coming across as ignorant. That said, it doesn’t work so well in meetings; it’s only really an option in written communications.

    Depending on how big the project is, a few months may not be enough time to get your feet under you. The CERCLA site (EPA Superfund) clean-up process, for example, is expected to take several years from cradle to grave, and can take a decade or more, with hundreds if not thousands of samples collected during that time. No one can be expected to process that much information–plus issues surrounding them, such as the client’s history with regulators and the like–in two or three months, certainly not with other responsibilities piling on. Other programs that I’m familiar with are similar–there’s too much data to process in that timeframe, and you haven’t had sufficient time to immerse yourself in the project. It’s an unreasonable expectation that you have done so.

    One final piece of advice, from my mentor to me when I was starting out: You are a scientist. What you are marketing isn’t your knowledge–almost everything you and I know can be found by anyone with the right book or journal membership. What you are marketing is your integrity. If you sacrifice that, even once, your career is over; you’ve got nothing to sell. If you don’t know something and pretend to know it, people WILL find out, and it WILL destroy your career. This sounds a bit harsh, but the reality of being a scientist in the private sector is that people will push you to violate your integrity. The only response is to draw a line in the sand and never take a single step across it. Those people saying you shouldn’t say you don’t know something are asking you to lie, pure and simple. And it is far, far, FAR better to simply walk away than to give in to that pressure. “I left because they were pressuring me to violate my integrity” sounds a lot better than “I got caught falsifying information”!

    1. Katie*

      OP here. Thank you for your thoughtful response. It’s good to hear I’m not alone and that the steps I’ve been taking are appropriate.

  28. AnotherHRPro*

    Learning to be comfortable not knowing everything is a great lesson. Just remember, the reason someone is asking you the question is because they don’t know either! It is perfectly acceptable to not know everything (no one does). And it is even better to be someone who understands what they do and don’t know. Even best of all, those who know what they don’t know but knows how to get the answer and is willing to put in the effort to get the answer!

  29. MsMaryMary*

    I had a couple of professors in college who really focused on making sure we learned how to say “I don’t know” gracefully. Every time we had to do a presentation, they’d throw a totally unexpected question at someone (or multiple someones). They could tell if someone started to bullshit and wouldn’t let them get away with it. And they didn’t let us flail around for too long. I learned pretty quickly to say “I don’t have those statistics in front of me, so let me get them to you later today” or “I believe the answer is X, but I’ll confirm that for you when I’m back at my desk” or “Let me talk with my IT team and get back to you.” Honestly, it was one of the most valuable things I learned in college.

  30. Two4OneFish*

    You gave this person a great answer. As a Ph.D. myself in a scientific field it can be hard to say, “I don’t know”, when you’ve spent years working towards knowing as much as you can about your specific area. This concern about saying you don’t know will ease as you get farther away from your degree, get more experience in your new area, and follow the good advice given here. In business it is much more about keeping your promises and treating people well than it is about knowing everything.

  31. Kristine*

    I was told never to say “I don’t know” to a docent or museum guide when I worked at a museum. So I ended up using euphemisms that meant the same thing. My boss was a micromanaging, drama-prone loon. I say “I don’t know” at my current job and there is no problem.

  32. Ashra Kolhatkar*

    What happens if the mature and responsible answers don’t get you anywhere? I (woman, at the time mid-20s, lowly ‘Research Assistant’) used to work with a guy (white, 60s, doctor) who took my reasonable “I don’t know”s as an example of my profound incompetence as a person. The questions were things like, “What is the budget for X” which were way above my pay grade. When I answered saying that I didn’t know, he followed up with a condescending, “So, what’s your background?!” What do you do in cases like this?

    1. Aurion*

      “I don’t know, Lucretia does Accounts Payable, she’ll be able to answer you/I can ask her for you.” I would refuse to answer the question about the background, since it’s completely irrelevant.

      “I don’t know” is best followed by a variant of “but I’ll find out for you” or a redirect to the person who would know if the information is not in your wheelhouse/you are unable to find out.

    2. MillersSpring*

      “That’s information I don’t have/wouldn’t be expected to have, but I can research it/refer you to Other Person.”

  33. Abigael*

    I have a question about when you don’t know the answer to a question in an e-mail. Usually, I will respond to an email with one of the suggestions above–“I’m not sure, I think it might be X, but let me check and get back to you.” Then I will find the right answer and reply again later. However, my manager has reprimanded me for doing this, saying that I shouldn’t reply at all until I know the exact answer. He practices what he preaches–sometimes it will take him several weeks to respond to a question while he is searching for an answer (and sometimes he will forget to reply at all). My opinion is that this is unprofessional, because the emailer should at least know that you are looking into their question. My manager, however, states that it is unprofessional to provide a clear “guess” answer and then report later with new information.

    Thoughts?

    1. MillersSpring*

      Just reply quickly to acknowledge the email. A reply such as, “I’m on it” or “I’m looking into it” is professional–just don’t guess as your manager as advised.

    2. Aurion*

      I think it’s a matter of timeline. If you can find the answer in a day or two, I’d skip the “I’m on it” email and just reply with the answer. But if it takes weeks to find out the answer, then yeah, I’d send an “I’m on it” email just to let the other person know that you are looking into it and haven’t forgotten.

  34. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    “One fool can ask more questions than seven wise men can answer”

    Funny, I once had a job interview who grilled me that way and when question #21 wasn’t answered correctly, he effectively ended the interview.

    Six months later they hadn’t hired anyone. Gee whiz. And they asked me to come back in; I was not interested.

    Some years later I was out of work and had been invited to drop off my resume at a place and heard an overhead page “(the obnoxious interviewer) please call extension 221”.

    I said to the receptionist “Sorry, farmer, I’m in the wrong joke” – a reference to a Statler Brothers comedy routine – and ran – not walked – RAN out the door.

  35. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot*

    My comments are no longer showing up on this blog. Guess Alison has decided my comments are unwanted. Well then, good fucking riddance. It’s been a long three days.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Your comments are being moderated because you began leaving hostile responses to people today (which I’ve removed) and called someone disgusting and vile.

  36. Not So NewReader*

    Oh, OP, I see several problems here.

    Science is a supposed to be an area where people ask questions and there are not immediate answers. “How do we cure cancer?” Anyone doesn’t know when to say “I don’t know” is going to be in serious trouble here. See, you know when to say, “I don’t know”, so you aren’t going to have big problems.
    I think your boss should help change the culture of the workplace to be more accepting or at least more tolerant of “I don’t know.” There is no need to be judgey.

    The next thing I see going on is that you are missing information that previous workers should have done and you starting to don THEIR guilt for incomplete or lost work. Please stop. One way of stopping yourself from wearing other people’s guilt is to just quit using the expression “I don’t know about XYZ.” Instead say, “That portion was lost [or incomplete] and I [we] will work to reconstruct it. I anticipate it will take x amount of time [OR we will start in two weeks OR I can fix that this afternoon if you need me to do this].”

    Where I work I have several filing cabinets fill of files that are hopelessly screwed up. Since we are talking probably over 40 feet of files, the likelihood of me fixing it by myself is NEVER. Like you I have a very good and very supportive boss. Once in a while I have to actually use one of those files that are messed up. I refuse to say “i don’t know”. And I am very careful not to name any names. So my comments go like this, “The information is not shown here in the file.” Or, “The file seems to be very thin*, I do not see any reference to that information.” *This works very well in a situation where people who know what is going on would expect to see a thick file. Because the file is thin, the natural question is “Well where is A, B and C that should be in there?” My answer is “Nope, it’s not in there.” In my case, I have no way to reconstruct the information, once it is gone then that is it. Don’t name names, but don’t compulsively cover for people who bungled their job.

    My last consideration for you to mull over is, WHO is telling you not to say “I don’t know”? Is it other newish people who are struggling to fit in also? Is it older people who don’t want to be bothered with the longer conversation that happens when a newer person says, “I don’t know”. Instead of taking the advice at face value, try-try-try to consider what could be motivating that particular person to say that to you. To me, it sounds like something an employee would say who routinely misreads situations, at one point they used to say “I don’t know” too often and they got in trouble for it.

    Second half of this consideration is to think about context. Look at the differences in the scenarios:
    Scenario A:
    Cohort: “OP, will you explain to me how brain surgery works?”
    You: Hmmm. Gee, I really don’t know.

    Scenario B:
    Cohort: “OP, do you know where the box of extra pens is?”
    You: Hmm. Gee, I really don’t know.

    It could be that people were warning you to not make the foolish mistake of answering basic questions with “I don’t know” and they never intended that you should have encyclopedic knowledge of brain surgery or whatever. I worked with one person, who was a nice person. Imagine my surprise one day when I needed to borrow pens for a meeting and when I asked her she said, “I dunno.” I repeated that back to her. She elaborated by saying, “I don’t know if I can make that decision so I won’t.” I rrreeeally needed those pens, too, dang it.
    In this case, OP, it’s pens. Personally, I would have just given a package out. Later, if I found out that was the wrong answer, I would apologize to the boss and never do it again. But. It’s PENS, that all it is. Keep in mind the size of the decision/answer and the impact it will have on world history in one hundred years from now. I lost a bit of respect for my cohort that day, I really, really needed her help and I was in a bind.

  37. NW Mossy*

    I manage a staff of long-serving employees with deep technical expertise in their respective areas, so I hear “Why doesn’t Jane know X?” with some regularity.

    My response is often to share with them a comic from Randall Munroe, the ex-NASA scientist behind xkcd.com. He did a comic called “Lucky 10,000” that works through the math of how a fact becomes something that “everybody knows.” Long story short, for a fact that 100% of people know by age 30, approximately 10,000 people learn that fact for the first time each day. The punchline is someone asking “Diet Coke and Mentos? What’s that?” and another person excitedly leading them away saying “You’re one of today’s lucky 10,000!”

    I like his take because it’s a gentle way of reframing someone’s lack of knowledge as an opportunity to teach them something useful/cool/interesting rather than the learner being annoying or deliberately ignorant. I use it on myself as well when I’m getting frustrated because someone doesn’t know something it seems like they should. It puts me in a frame of mind to be able to answer their question kindly and helpfully, which sets a much better tone for my future interactions with that person.

    1. James*

      I’ve gotten questions like that, too. They annoy me a great deal, because they always seem to come from someone who thinks “subject matter expert” equals “knows everything off the top of his head”. The issue is, each area of expertise is actually a suite of inter-related areas of expertise. Within that suite, you pick a handful of things to focus on. Let’s say someone’s a football fan. They could be a college football fan, a pro fan, a high school fan, or a guy who plays every weekend. Is it reasonable to expect the fan to know every high school team in the state if he’s a pro fan? Of course not–but he knows how to find out. In the same way, an expert on, say, waste disposal regulations may not be familiar with regs from every state, or with some obscure issue that happens to pop up. They can learn it, but to expect them to know it off the top of their head is simply unreasonable.

      A great way I’ve used to manage this is to give experts lead time. Avoid asking them for things on the spot or expecting immediate answers as much as possible. After you build a relationship with them you’ll know what they can answer right away, and if something’s outside of that ask the question before it becomes critical and give them time to answer you. Typically I’ll send out an email saying “During next Tuesday’s meeting I’m hoping you can answer the following questions for us”. That of course assumes there IS an answer; when there’s not, there’s not, and that’s just the unfortunate reality.

  38. Library Director*

    Advice I received when I was 18 and first in the Army: If the question refers to a large amount of data thrown at you say, “I don’t recall the exact number/name/detail at the moment, but I’ll get it to you.” It acknowledges that I was told the information and can provide it with the appropriate time. It’s served me well with elected officials.

  39. Chaordic One*

    In a related vein, I feel uncomfortable when an unanticipated task comes up and I don’t know if I can get it done in time. I am inclined to respond with, “I’ll try,” because I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to finish the task in the time that I have given. The advice I see given is usually that you should always answer, “Yes, I’ll do it,” because that is what the person asking wants to hear and because you’ll probably be able to finish the task anyway.

    I kind of feel that by saying, “I’ll try,” I’m being honest and leaving myself wiggle room in case I can’t finish the task. I really hate not being able to deliver if I’ve promised something, but maybe this is one of those situations where it is better to over-promise and then apologize later if you can’t deliver on the promise.

    1. NW Mossy*

      I find “I’ll try” can come off as being reluctant or resistant, even if that’s not what you mean. You could try something like “You’ll need this by Friday? Let me look at my schedule and see if that’s feasible, and I’ll touch base with you later today to confirm a timeline.”

      This gives you time to go away and consider the important features of what’s being asked before committing. Typically you’ll be looking at the time needed to complete the task, the urgency of it (often tied to who’s asking or if there’s other work that depends on this task being done first), and your other responsibilities. You’re right that most of the time you’ll circle back to say “Friday’s no problem – I’ll let you know if I have questions.” In some cases, you’ll figure out Friday’s too soon and you’ll need to work with your boss/the requester to figure out the best way to solve it (deliver later, reassign to someone else, get help, delegate/deprioritize other responsibilities). Generally, both options are totally fine because you’re communicating about what’s reasonable and not just blindly accepting everything that comes your way.

      That said, if you commit to Friday and it starts to look like you won’t be done in time, say something sooner rather than later. This gives you an opportunity to reopen that timeline negotiation and find a mutually agreeable solution before the deadline’s blown.

  40. ABK2R*

    So I gave “I don’t know” as a response to a question in a meeting once (I remember I straight out said “I don’t know” but none of the rest). I was new to this office but not The Firm, and afterwards a colleague I didn’t really know pulled me aside and very sternly lectured me that “this was The X Division of The Firm and ‘I don’t know’ was NEVER an acceptable answer.”

    Which was weird and horrible advice that I ignored. I’m glad I wasn’t new to The Firm at the time, otherwise it might have affected me more.

  41. ArtK*

    As others have pointed out, a flat “I don’t know” isn’t a good thing. But there are lots and lots of ways of saying it that are good and useful. I know that I much prefer that someone admit to ignorance than trying to BS their way through.

    “I’m not sure, let me verify and get back to you.” “That was a decision made before I came on board; let me look at the documentation from that time.” “Good question; time for me to do some research!”

    Make a specific promise of when you’re going to get back to them with an answer. If, as will happen occasionally, you can’t find the answer, get back to them with “I’ve been digging and haven’t found anything. Can you give me some more context to help figure out what is what?” Finally, you’re in charge of Project X now. That may mean overriding or at least revisiting old decisions. It’s *your* project, not the last two people’s — they walked away. Don’t be afraid of making it your own.

  42. AmberRachel*

    Wow. I work in the IT department of a fairly large company and I will ask one of the analysts why something in their program did not work or function the way it was supposed to. They have no problem saying “I have no idea”.

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