how to say “I don’t know” with confidence

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 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.

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 and passed it to another colleague who then left a few months later. Now I have responsibility for Project X. An issue 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.

In a recent meeting, 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, got general agreement for the timeline I suggested, and set in motion a plan to solve the problem. But 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 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.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 121 comments… read them below }

  1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

    I think a key is that the answer isn’t “I don’t know [FULL STOP].” Instead, the answer is, “I don’t know, here’s a brief explanation of why, and how I’m going to find an answer.”

    Depending on the culture, explaining the “why I don’t know” part may not be necessary or appreciated, but as a colleague and/or project lead, I need to be confident that the question will be answered. I’m not judging you for not knowing something off the top of your head.

    1. Weekend Please*

      Yes! I hate working with people who will give a confident answer whether to not they actually know the correct answer. It makes it so hard to trust anything they say which basically makes going to them useless. If you don’t know the answer, tell me. Then I know that if you do give me an answer it can be trusted.

    2. LadyByTheLake*

      I usually do not care why someone doesn’t know something, I just need to know that they will find it. I am also fine with “I don’t know, who do you think I should get that from?” from a newer person or “I don’t know, that’s information you need to get from Wakeen” (if I am the new person). The only time I would care about why they don’t know is if they have been in the position for a long while and it is their explicit job to have that information at their fingertips.

      1. Nicki Name*

        Yeah, I would skip the explanation of why you don’t know, and offer it only if pressed for more details. Sometimes the “I’m going to find out” part contains the explanation anyway, e.g., “I don’t know yet, I’ll have a better answer for you when they finish loading the backup of Wakeen’s bricked laptop.”

    3. The Original K.*

      Exactly. “I don’t know but I’ll find out,” maybe with a brief explanation of how you’ll find out, goes far, in my experience – and then of course, following through on finding out.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        The follow through part is key. Say you’re going to do something to find out the missing information and then don’t do it – yes I will judge you (as a person who only follows through if your feet are kept to the fire).

    4. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      In the case where “I don’t know” is the permanent answer though, an explanation is important so that they don’t keep asking. “I’m sorry, I can’t give you an answer to that. My predecessor was the only known person on the planet to have that information, and to my knowledge, he never wrote it down before being eaten by a sarlacc.”

      1. Natalie*

        Yes, it sounds like in this letter specifically, finding out isn’t actually possible. I’ve been in that position a few times and you kind of do need to explain (briefly, factually, non-defensively) that you don’t have the information and can’t acquire it.

    5. Jennifer*

      I like “I don’t know, but here’s who can help you.” Or “I don’t know, but we don’t need to focus on that because…”

      I much prefer an “I don’t know” over someone that’s too insecure to admit they don’t have all the answers and points me in the wrong direction.

    6. mquinn*

      Agreed 100%. I’ve had to talk to one of our associates about this a few times. It’s ok to not know the answer, it’s ok to say “I don’t know”, but you can’t ONLY say “I don’t know.” Especially when it is information that our team is responsible for providing for the project to move forward.

  2. Roja*

    My wisest college professor once told me that it was always better to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll look that up for you” than to make up something that sounded right without necessarily being right. That advice has never failed me.

    1. Weekend Please*

      Sometimes. “I don’t know, but if I had to guess…” works too depending on the situation. It makes it clear that you are not confident in the answer but can provide a rough estimate which is sometimes helpful to move the meeting forward. Then circle back with the verified information.

      1. Prosaic*

        This is my go-to line for things I’m not 100% sure of at work. That, or if you think saying “I don’t know” will make the sharks smell blood in the water, “I’m not sure, but X…I’ll double-check later, though” is a softer way to go about it.

      2. Roja*

        Yeah, I use that too, or “In my experience, it’s usually this.” Granted, I teach kids so it’s a rare time indeed when they need the answer immediately rather than being able to wait until the next class. Anything that’s needed immediately is something I’m already going to know.

      3. CmdrShepard4ever*

        I agree with this, in my work being sure about things really makes a difference. Often I am asked questions that I am 99.99% certain of the answer but I need to be 100% certain, I will say something like “I am not 100% sure, I believe it is x…, let me double check and I will confirm.” I will then check and get back to people and say, “Yes, my initial answer is right, or no I was wrong it was actually B….”

      4. LizM*

        Depending on the context, like if we’re just brainstorming or talking through different options, I may say, “For now, I’m assuming it’s this, but I want to confirm that before we take any concrete action.” And then add that confirmation to the list of action items.

      5. Koalafied*

        Yeah, if I think I know but I’m not confident in my answer I’ll usually say something like, “That is a good question that I don’t know the answer to. I want to say [what I think the answer is] but don’t quote me on that until I verify it.” If applicable I might add, “It could be that [alternative].” And then add to my to-do list to find the answer and follow back up with the person who asked.

        With the types of questions I get/people I get them from, there tends to be an information-gathering/brainstorming phase before their tangible work begins, so often giving them my best guess of what I think the answer is means they can start thinking about it in the shower, which is a significant sinking any time into actually producing tangible work path based on it until I’ve confirmed.

        1. Koalafied*

          Wow, my keyboard really garbled that last sentence – should read “without sinking any significant time into actually producing tangible work.”

      6. TardyTardis*

        Sometimes at the tax place a customer would ask a question I didn’t know the answer to, and I’d tell them, ‘let’s go see what the IRS/State tax people say about that!” and zip off on a new tab to find out. It’s not all W-2’s and 1099’s out there…(God, I love the smell of real estate swaps in the morning…appraisals are seriously your friend for those things).

    2. Ms. Hagrid Frizzle*

      Yes, this times a million! My background is in science and I am now a youth science educator. One of the things I try to drill into my kids’ heads is the idea that “Sometimes the smartest thing you can say is ‘I don’t know.'”

      In professional settings, it comes down to knowing when to say “I don’t know” and then knowing how to create a plan to bridge the gap. It’s something that a lot of people fresh out of college (or coming from certain corners of academia at any point) can have a really hard time admitting. I think reframing the situation from “I don’t know X and clearly that is a reflection of my personal failure” to “I don’t know X, but I am intelligent and confident enough to both be honest about my limitations and recognize an opportunity for growth” is not only a way to reduce stress, but a way to model positive and healthy leadership in a variety of situations.

      1. Roja*

        This exactly. I’m a teacher too, so a lot of it has to do with modeling what to do for students. Either it’s not that important of a question and they can wait (in a situation where my best guess isn’t sufficient), or it’s too important for my best guess and I need to make sure I have my ducks in a row before I answer it more in-depth.

      2. HotSauce*

        I’d much rather hear “I don’t know” than some random answer that isn’t correct. I have a coworker who gives a lot of answers in the moment when he doesn’t really have all of the info and many people don’t trust him to provide an accurate answer anymore.

  3. Tess*

    You’re new; other factors are beyond your control; and you’ve laid out a plan to move forward according to the information you do have, and the timeline of whichyour colleagues seem to have accepted.

    Not sure why you’re being so hard on yourself. Would you think badly of you if the tables were turned? Likely not.

    You’re doing the best you can under the circumstances. If that’s not good enough, it seems maybe there is some other dynamic at play. Perfectionism, perhaps.

    1. Amaranth*

      Yes! It sounds to me like LW handled it gracefully. Calmly explained why the data isn’t there and laid out a way to obtain it. It would be totally different if LW had just said ‘sorry, the guy before me didn’t document any of that’ and just …left it at that. Its so much more valuable to have someone go away and get a comprehensive, *accurate* answer than something half-baked just to check off a box.

  4. ivy*

    Often times, the phrase “I don’t know” isn’t necessary either.

    “I’ll get back to you on that one” works fine

    1. irene adler*

      As long as there’s follow-through.

      The “I’ll get back to you” can be used to blow off someone. Difference being the follow-through afterwards.

      1. Nanani*

        This x100.
        “Ill get back to you” followed by silence is the bane of my working life. (Especially in email. Don’t waste an email telling me you’ll email me later. Just email back when you have something to say! It can be “I don’t know, check with Hornsby” rather than the actual answer – “I don’t know” is a perfectly cromulent answer!)

        1. Karo*

          I think there can be value in responding with “I’m working on it” or “I’ll get back to you.” It lets the receiver know that I am doing something with it ( your email hasn’t been lost or ignored) and that it’s going to take awhile (If it was only going to take 5-10 minutes, I would’ve just done it). Of course, just emailing “I don’t know,” with no further explanation should only be done if you’ve told the person 50 bajillion times that you wouldn’t know and they should ask Hornsby.

          1. Anon for this*

            Yep. I have a few people I need to email daily about whatever I’m doing for them, even if I have no news, or they’ll ask me about it again and again.

    2. Lego Leia*

      One of my first bosses ever *hated* the phrase “I don’t know”. I got really good at “let me check and get back to you” or “where would I go to find out ?” You have to know the audience, sometimes.

  5. starsaphire*

    I think this is kind of what some great philosophies are getting at when they talk about knowing nothing being the beginning of wisdom.

    It’s not that you don’t know anything. It’s that you KNOW you don’t know everything, and instead of being ashamed of it and trying to cover up, you’re up front about it and invested in finding solutions.

    Or I could be wrong. I don’t know for sure. :)

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I think there is an amazing amount of intelligence in knowing what you don’t know. I think that’s the basis behind the thought of “don’t open your mouth and remove all doubts you are a fool.”

  6. Alx*

    Are you CRO? Sounds textbook CRO to me. If yes, I am in the same role and I do “let me dig into it” – for the rest, you handle it perfectly. If you are in North America, as it seems, indeed, too many questions would raise eyebrows. If issue not specifically American, ask across the pond. If American, ask the levels below you. They would appreciate being asked and they are likely to have done the work thus have the knowledge.

    1. Alx*

      To clarify, eyebrows above belonging to management/higher levels. Job must be done, you must know how. While I find the attitude utterly stupid, it is prevalent in industry. We build the plane while we fly it, as one of my colleagues put it. You do great.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I didn’t know the acronym so went to the web, and wow there are a lot of definitions. Which one do you mean?

      1. RabbitRabbit*

        As someone who works in the field but not at one, my interpretation was they were asking if the LW works at a Clinical Research Organization. This is a company that generally serves as an intermediary between a pharmaceutical company and the research hospitals/sites that are conducting research.

  7. Not playing your game anymore*

    We have the hardest time convincing our library staff to say “That’s a good question. Let me do some research.” The three most senior staff have 100 years experience in our library and have no problem saying “let me get back to you” The people who’ve been there 2 years feel like they should know it all… and of course, they never will.

    1. Mental Lentil*

      What’s really great about librarians and other people who work in libraries is not that they know everything (they don’t), but they know HOW to find out. I’ve learned a lot from watching them research things and asking them questions.

      1. BugHuntressc*

        Dang, I’m a fledgling software engineer and @MentalLentil’s framing is a really inspiring way to think about my profession too. Don’t try to become (or pretend to be) the imaginary engineer who Knows How To Fix Everything— be the engineer who knows how to interact with a system in order to learn about it, and then fix it. Curiosity, patience, love.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Library assistant here: I realized awhile back that this job has made me a lot braver about not having all the answers (but I’ve been here 16 years, so I’ve had some practice at not knowing everything). I have gotten really chill about saying, “I haven’t been asked that before” or “I need to take a look at [whatever reference material] before I commit to an answer” followed by, “What’s your email address–I’ll get back to you this afternoon/in a couple of days/however long enough seems reasonable.”

      There is no way in the world I can memorize all our collections or all the things people might ask me, but I do know how to find out if I can give them an answer.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I also have enough of a science/research background to be OK with a negative result. Sometimes the answer is that you can’t determine an answer from the material you have, and you need to look elsewhere (or direct a researcher elsewhere). I don’t love that but I like it better than BSing.

      2. Seeking Second Childhood*

        I worked in a library during college, and I remember the sheer delight on my supervisor’s face when I asked him something about the collection that he didn’t know. “That’s a really good question, and I will do some research!”

        1. char*

          I’m not a librarian, but this comment made me realize why I actually love it when someone comes to me with a question about my area of expertise that I don’t know the answer to. They’ve given me the opportunity to discover something new!

    3. curiousLemur*

      I’ve worked with software developers where yeah, the experts were perfectly OK with saying “I don’t know”. They’d usually follow that up with something like “But you can ask John” or “Try doing x” or something like that.

      Some of the newbie developers were difficult to work with because they really, really didn’t want to say they didn’t know.

      1. BugHuntressc*

        Yes, I’m a new software engineer and my company is so good at this! It’s safe to say what you don’t know, or correct a higher-up if they’re making an important mistake. Being very honest about what I know and don’t know is actually such a relief – at my last job, where I was a college admin, the politics were so toxic that people didn’t stop really bad mixups from happening, because they didn’t want to be the shot messenger!

  8. Green great dragon*

    Oh goodness, if you don’t know, say so. I need to trust the answer I’ve been given (or be clearly told it’s a guess). And you don’t need to be apologetic about it unless it’s something you ought to know.

    A straightforward, flat “we don’t know that’ when the data doesn’t exist gets me a lot more respect for knowing what we know than any apology would. That’s not the same as *I* don’t know, but sounds right for some of your examples. And ‘I don’t know but I’ll get back to you this afternoon’ is generally absolutely fine. I’m mostly working with people who have better things to do than listen to excuses or apologies.

    1. TiffIf*

      Oh goodness, if you don’t know, say so. I need to trust the answer I’ve been given (or be clearly told it’s a guess). And you don’t need to be apologetic about it unless it’s something you ought to know.

      THIS so much.

      I once had a consumer credit account with a company and I wanted a specific item that was only showing in their business inventory. I contacted the company directly to ask if I could purchase a BUSINESS item with a PERSONAL credit account. I made it clear that I knew the answer might be no and that was okay.

      I was told it would be absolutely fine.

      Then when my order was stuck in limbo for weeks I called back to ask what the problem was. They said you’re trying to purchase a business item with a personal credit account and you can’t do that.

      I was PISSED. I don’t appreciate being lied to and the fact that the person on the phone initially blithely told me it was perfectly ok despite apparently not know jack squat pissed me off to no end. I cancelled the order. I have never purchased from that company again even when it would have been less expensive or more convenient.

      I had a different experience a few years ago with another company where I had made a mistake in an order and I was calling to ask if it could be caught and changed before shipping. The person assured me it could be done. And then it wasn’t. I was told that it couldn’t be done. So I complained about the rep that told me it could be done. I would have been perfectly fine with an answer of “I’m not sure if we’ll be able to stop the order in time, but we’ll try” or “We can’t stop the order at this point, here’s our return policy” but, no, I was explicitly told they could catch the order and fix it before shipping. I was perfectly willing to accept that maybe they couldn’t do anything and the mistake was on me. But they told me otherwise. I remember asking why I had been told it was possible to do what I was asking when it wasn’t actually possible and the answer was “We want you to have a pleasant experience.” I snapped back “Being lied to is not a pleasant experience.”

      1. curiousLemur*

        “Being lied to is not a pleasant experience.” Yeah.

        Sometimes people don’t seem to get that if customers are happy in the short term with a lie (Sure we can do that) but become unhappy because they find out it was a lie, the customer becomes especially unhappy. I get that a company can’t do everything, but be up-front with me.

  9. lost academic*

    You could be many many people in my firm and the situation you describe happens all the time, and the best staff handle it exactly the way you are handling it. Period.

  10. KHB*

    In one of the lab classes I took in college, the house-made lab manual (hand-typed who-knows-when by god-knows-who) included a question that just didn’t make any sense to me. It was something about relating two concepts, that, as far as I could tell, were unrelated (something like “What does the Schmuckowicz effect have to do with your measurement of the fizzbin spectrum?”)

    In my lab report, I laid out every fact I could think of about the Schmuckowicz effect, but in the end just concluded “What any of this has to do with my measurement of the fizzbin spectrum is beyond me.”

    The professor who graded the report just wrote “It is also beyond me,” and gave me full credit for that question.

    Ever since then, I’ve been a big fan of saying “I don’t know” whenever it’s the honest answer. When it’s something I should know but don’t, I find that “That’s a very good question” goes a long way toward putting the asker at ease until I can find out – because who doesn’t like to be told that they’re asking good questions?

    1. Amber Rose*

      One of the best teachers I ever had would go through every test question by question with the class, and if you could explain reasonably why you thought a question was misleading or confusing and a few people had the same problem, he’d give you the point. If he disagreed that it was confusing, he’d just explain the question and answer or open it up to discussion. Nobody ever got shamed for not understanding something.

      Really taught us all to speak up.

      1. KHB*

        That sounds amazing – and very brave of your teacher to open himself up to what I’m sure must have been a humbling experience at times. Good for him.

    2. Trekkie*

      You both should have known that the fizzbin spectrum runs from two jacks (a half-fizzbin) to three jacks (a sralk — but that disqualifies you) to a royal fizzbin (the odds against which are astronomical). Or you would have known if you’d been to Beta Antares IV. And then you would have a Piece of the Action.

    3. Insert Clever Name Here*

      I had an interview once where one of the requirements was experience working on projects with Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) requirements, which are divided into different subparts. The interviewer asked me if I’d ever dealt specifically with the requirements of FAR subpart 67 and I said “I’m not familiar with subpart 67, so I’d have to review it to see if it relates to my previous projects.” He then told me that the FAR only has 53 subparts and over half of the people he’d interviewed for the position talked about their experience with (fake) subpart 67. I called my dad after that interview and thanked him for always encouraging me to say “I don’t know” :)

  11. SomebodyElse*

    The coworker sounds a bit odd with their advice. Unless there’s something else going on that the OP didn’t know about it’s perfectly reasonable and acceptable to not know something when taking on a project. (Especially one where it’s been handed off twice.)

    The more confident you are the more likely you are to admit when you don’t know something or have an answer ready. You should have a plan to get it, but it’s fine to say you don’t know. It’s also good practice to have data waiting in the wings or to couch answers if you are planning to back to back it up.

    “I don’t have the information at my fingertips , but IIRC the blah blah blah, I’ll confirm this with you tomorrow”
    “I’ve found that data missing from the project documents. We’ll be recompiling from the source data that we did find, I’ll make it available when complete, we’re estimating 1 week”
    “Wakeen was working on that and I don’t have the information with me. I’m meeting with him tomorrow and will ask for the update and pass it along”

    I will also suggest that sometimes heading things off at the pass is a good way to instill confidence. Usually with projects the PM will be able to update the steering committee/sponsors on progress. Something like this should be listed as a risk. Then you’ve already told the team that you don’t have some information and that you have a plan to get it. Then when a specific question comes up you can point back to that previously stated risk.

    “Oh yes the paperclip stats, unfortunately that was one of the pieces we found to be missing. We are working on the binder clip study results first, then will move on to recompiling the paper clip data. Once completed it will be included in the project documents”

    1. MissDisplaced*

      The culture at some workplaces can be really brutal if you admit you don’t know something. Need I point out those aren’t generally the best workplaces?

      Some bosses also are extremely tough if you don’t have everything memorized because it’s viewed as part of “being prepared,” even if it’s not something you might have off the top of your head.

      1. Lucious*

        Even in those toxic workplaces, it’s best to admit you’ll research the answer versus making something up. Better to be thought incompetent than to open your mouth & remove all doubt.

  12. The Rafters*

    Stock answer in my office – “That’s a good question. Let me look into this and I’ll get back to you.” Of course, you are expected to do just that. We’ve never had a problem giving this as an initial response even to those outside of the company.

  13. 3DogNight*

    It sounds like you handled it perfectly. I have a PM, and when I get that answer, I’m fine. When they fumble or bluff, it’s a problem. You’re good :D

    1. Chilipepper*

      I also thought the OP handled it perfectly!
      I wish I knew why the coworkers said not to say that. Is there one person at the top who hates it when people say that, did they mean don’t say IDK and stare blankly but offering solutions is ok, are they nuts … or what was their reasoning?

  14. twocents*

    I think it depends on what they’re seeking. I have been on projects where key people have left over time and sometimes the answer really is always going to be “I don’t know.” Like if people want to know why was X decided, if no one is still around was around when they decided X and they didn’t leave notes, then you have no idea why they decided that. Anyone who has been around projects is going to understand this. You don’t always have to know the answer.

    1. Miss Pantalones En Fuego*

      Yes, this. It’s usually acceptable to say “that was before my time here and unfortunately there don’t seem to be any records of the decision making process” or similar. Add comments about trying to find that information as appropriate.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      A useful phrase I recently heard was “you do not own the gap”, where the person being asked had only recently inherited a poorly documented project.

  15. molliepups*

    In my organization, men seem to bluff their way through these situations while women are more apt to admit they don’t have all the info. And while our staff has a higher ratio of women to men, more men are in the decision making positions. Its my belief that while its the right thing to say “I’ll get you the info” and admit you don’t know every single thing, promotions don’t always go to those people. So I’m curious if in this situation there is gender aspect at play.

    1. Amaranth*

      This might be a case where it is important to frame it as ‘x group didn’t document that part of the process so here is how we will fix this’ as opposed to ‘sorry, I don’t have that’ which can give the impression you just didn’t think the information was something they’d need.

    2. irene adler*

      At my work, the c-suite (all but one are male) always have answers. It’s never “I don’t know” or any variation of “Let me get back to you on that.” Can’t say they are 100% correct though.

      One boss I had, male, was quite the exception. If he new something, he told you. If he didn’t, he’d say right off, “I don’t know that information.” But he would follow this with “and I’ll help you to find out that information.” Which he did. He helped with whatever the issue or question was to see to it there was a resolution.

      1. This saying is recognizable*

        My CEO has a saying he uses a lot “In God we trust… Everyone else bring data”

        It sets the tone that bluff answers aren’t acceptable.

    3. James*

      I haven’t experienced that. I’ve seen a few people try to bluff their way through things. It works–right up until it doesn’t, at which point it goes catastrophically wrong. They usually end up leaving the company, one way or another, at about that point.

      The ones who rise at my organization are those who say “I’ll ask X about this”. The idea isn’t to know, but to know who knows–and to have a team that can support you.

    4. ilikecoffee*

      At my current job, there is a particular guy who will confidently bullshit. He would go to big meetings, confidently promise the world, and then let others get thrown under the bus when things didn’t work out. As far as I can tell, he was not held accountable but instead basically failed upwards.

      Reason #1 I am leaving this job!

    5. Natalie*

      Huh, that hasn’t been my experience. Maybe being in a number-driven field, but I don’t observe my (male) CFO BSing more or being less willing to acknowledge not having the information than my (female) controller.

      1. curiousLemur*

        Yeah, that hasn’t been my experience either, maybe because I do software development. Sort of like a number-driven field, you can only bluff so far with programming.

    6. Roci*

      I don’t think it’s necessarily gendered, though I have noticed cultural differences as to what constitutes “sure enough” to answer: if you are 50% sure, do you say “I don’t know” or add caveats? What about 80% sure?

      But I do suspect that people who bluff their way through situations (or to put it charitably, give confident answers when they are less than 75% sure, or have not thoroughly investigated enough to warrant the level of confidence) are more likely to get promotions and look good. Because the people they’re explaining to are trusting their explanation and don’t know to doubt that until/if it becomes an issue later.

      So Person A seems to have done a lot of research already, seems to know the topic well, puts you at ease with their answer… and Person B needs to research more, can’t answer things right away, and you don’t know if it’s the topic or the person that’s the issue. I can see why, if you don’t know the topic well, Person A looks better, even if Person B is actually more knowledgeable and accountable.

  16. Ups and downs*

    A coworker had this problem. They started and were assisting someone. This person was fired and they went from assisting to taking this persons position. There were tons of issues that came to light as a result. Its been 2 years since my coworker and I started and I am still helping them to fix it. We get asked similar questions all the time about this thing or that thing that was well before our time. We say I dont know on a damn near daily basis. It felt weird at first but honestly its bettwr than leading people on. We genuinely don’t know. It doesnt mean we wont try to find out. Just that we dont know right now.

    1. SomebodyElse*

      If there were problems with the previous person I think I’d be naturally suspect what they did do or leave behind.

      1. Ups and downs*

        This person got away with a lot because they were unsupervised and took advantage. The more we look into their previous work the more issues we find. We think we fix one and 2 more pop up. They were let go as soon as it became clear that things werent getting done the way they were supposed to.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      My previous supervisor stepped into a position in which his predecessor hadn’t been good about creating documentation for anything, so there was a lot of “I don’t know”. Nobody blamed him–we all knew that the previous person kept everything in her head.

  17. Naomi*

    Two thing to add. 1) see if anyone else in the room knows. Really depends on the project and what you as the PM are being asked for, so maybe this doesn’t apply in your situation. I’m a PM working in construction, but I didn’t come through the trades, so when I was first starting out in this role there were aspects to certain types construction that I was not familiar with. I got really good at saying “What have other people seen?” or “Anyone have good recommendations? Otherwise I will follow-up.” If there are people on your team who have been there for the lifetime of the project see if they can provide any of the backstory. 2) If you need info to take the next step, you can still use the meeting time to make a decisions tree with your team. Like “So we know the answer is either x or y, and I’m going to follow up to get that information. If we find out its x, how should we proceed?… Okay, and if we find out its y, then what would be our next steps?” This will help the meeting still be productive and not completely stall you out.

  18. Goddess47*

    For the co-workers who tell you that don’t want you to admit to not knowing something, the next time they ‘warn’ you about that, your serious-face answer should be something like, “what kind of an answer would you have made up?” Play it out so that they either have to admit to making things up regularly (which then means you can’t trust most of what they tell you) or they have to turn themselves inside-out explaining themselves.

    Like others have said, anyone who says that you shouldn’t admit to not knowing something has something else going on.

    Good luck with that project!

    1. Mental Lentil*

      Oh, this 1000%. How can you know everything if you are cleaning up somebody else’s mess?

  19. Bryce with a Y*

    Another key go-to phrase I use is this, particularly when, for example, I have some, but not all, of the information, and am trying to verify or get it:

    “What I understand right now is X.” (insert what I do know about the situation/topic) Is that understanding correct? Or what else do you think I need to know or find out?”

    That sounds something like this:

    (I know vaguely, but am not sure about the exact release date of Veeblefetzer 2.0)

    “What I understand right now is that we plan to release Veeblefetzer 2.0 on or around June 1. Is that understanding correct?”

    If yes: “Thanks for confirming that.

    If no: “Thanks for letting me know that the release date is on or around July 1.”

    “What else do we need to know about Veeblefetzer 2.0 with that in mind?”

  20. Despachito*

    Actually, what LW does seems brilliant to me.

    “I laid out a plan to rectify the issue, got general agreement for the timeline I suggested, and set in motion a plan to solve the problem.”

    I do not see anything what could be done better. We should not forget LW inherited a non-standard situation from their predecessors (missing documentation) and this makes their starting position much worse than if everything was OK.

    To acknowledge this and say that they are working on it and how is the maximum in their power now, and I frankly do not understand the point of their coworkers saying that this could reflect poorly on LW.

  21. IL JimP*

    I think one of the greatest failures of our society is that people don’t feel comfortable saying “I don’t know” when that is the most likely answer to the question. Not only in business but in so many areas. I would rather have someone tell me that they don’t know and how they plan to find the answer or direct me to answer than make something up or tell me a half truth wrapped in a bunch of BS

  22. JSPA*

    “That has not come up since I’ve been on the project; let me do a deep dive into the files and get back to you on [date].” It provides context without being defensive, and it promises an action and a response (which you 100% can do) rather than promising an outcome (which may or may not turn out to be possible).

    Pairs well with, “In the meantime, I’d suggest taking X and X’ as bracketing the range of default plausible scenarios, and continuing our discussion with those in mind.” Again, you’re not promising that the facts fall between X and X’, which is important; but you’re providing a way out of what might otherwise be a discussion-stalling lack of information.

  23. Been There*

    I once had a boss who was so against admitting he didn’t know something that he would actually MAKE STUFF UP and in the process make my job harder because I either had to accommodate his outlandish ideas, tell people he was wrong, or go behind his back to fix issues.

    I ended up getting fired from that job, but one of the things I really focus on in an interview is how the interviewer reacts when I respond to a question with “I’m not sure, let me think about it and we can touch base towards the end of the interview” or “let me get back to you, I don’t have an answer for that question”. If they respond badly, I definitely don’t want to work there.

    1. irene adler*

      My recently retired boss did just that. Made stuff up.
      I deemed him “The Smartest Man in the Entire World” because [he thought] he knew everything.

    2. curiousLemur*

      I had to work with a guy like that occasionally. Most of us learned quickly to double-check everything and not to believe a word he said. The sad part is that he was making it much harder for us to help him (or to want to bother helping him).

      Even worse, I also heard he’d be given good advice from another team, he’d do the opposite, and then when it didn’t work, he’d blame that team. I don’t think the team got in trouble, because we knew who was telling the truth and who wasn’t, but still…

  24. Chris*

    In addition to the “We don’t know” and “I don’t know but I will find out” answers that Alison mentioned, my other go-to is “I don’t know but you could try asking Bob. He may be in a better position to answer this than I am.” Just because I’m the first person they asked doesn’t mean I’m the best person to answer their question.

    Speaking more broadly, as I’ve gotten more confident and experienced at work, I’ve noticed that saying “I don’t know” comes a lot easier.

  25. Betsy S*

    This is a big chunk of my life – as a senior technical person I’m often asked things that I don’t know the answer to – sometimes nobody knows the answer to. And as a senior woman in tech, sometimes my not knowing is greeted with more skepticism than the same statement would be , coming from a man.

    The key I’ve found is to say I don’t know very VERY confidently.
    I don’t know X
    I do know Y and A, B, C
    I’ve been looking into this, and also this other thing.
    I will do some research on the issue and get back to you.

    Don’t apologize, don’t be flustered, say it in your firmest and most confident voice, because OF COURSE you will find out or figure it out.. If you can say “I will get back to you on X date” it sounds even more confident.

  26. Junior Assistant Peon*

    As a scientist, it’s always irritated me that MBA-types making confident-but-wrong statements tend to advance a lot further than us. A confident “All accidents can be prevented” impresses upper management much more than the more truthful “most accidents can be prevented.”

    I suspect management consultants are trained to never, ever answer a question with “I don’t know.” If I’m talking to someone from that background, I can never tell whether they really know something is a fact, or they’re just guessing and 51% sure.

    1. MissDisplaced*

      Oh yes! My regulatory person would never deal in absolutes, which is precisely what marketing is trained to sell. It’s not a lie, but absolute statements sound much more confident (hence sellable).

      “Leaves no residue” (confident, sure)
      “Leaves no detectable residue” (truth, but raises questions and creates confidence issues)

  27. learnedthehardway*

    It sounds to me like you handled that question the best way you could have – you were honest that you didn’t know, you had a good reason for why you didn’t know (ie. it was before your time and your predecessors didn’t keep notes), and you had a plan for how to get the information.

    If your work culture doesn’t like that, it’s a problem with your company, not you.

    Of course, I would do all your research and find out all you can about your project and the backstory of past decisions. I’d try to recreate a project plan, milestones, etc. etc. or would put those together, as well as a risk register, etc. etc., so that there IS a plan going forward. It sounds like you’re doing most of that.

    You might want to have a check-in with your manager about how they want you to handle these kinds of questions, in future. That will allow you to get a gauge on whether the “never say you don’t know” advice really reflects the company culture or whether you colleague was off-base. It also may be that they have more of the backstory on the project that they haven’t given you yet (perhaps not realizing that the committee you met with would want it) or that they would prefer you to refer questions like this to him/herself in future (ie. if the process of doing all this digging is going to detract from accomplishing future goals on the project or if the answers simply do not exist anywhere).

    1. Despachito*

      “it sounds to me like you handled that question the best way you could have – you were honest that you didn’t know, you had a good reason for why you didn’t know (ie. it was before your time and your predecessors didn’t keep notes), and you had a plan for how to get the information.

      If your work culture doesn’t like that, it’s a problem with your company, not you. ”


  28. Rich*

    The issue isn’t really whether you know something, it’s what you do to make sure the issue/question gets resolved. “The project predates my involvement by a lot. Nobody has the full history anymore. But we know X and Y for sure, and we’re going to do A and B to address it,” is literally the best possible answer.

    People will ask for information that goes in all kinds of directions. Part of being the expert in the room on a particular topic is helping them filter their questions. “How, exactly, did we get here?”, is only relevant if someone wants to assign blame or is concerned about repeating past mistakes. “Here’s where we are, here’s what we know, here’s what we’re going to do.”, filters out the unimportant parts of the question, refocuses on the goals, and refocuses on the plan to succeed. That’s the important question in play.

    And sometimes things are unknowable. “What happened on this project two years before you arrived?” “No clue. Don’t Care. The project has moved on.” You can’t be faulted for not having information that literally doesn’t exist.

  29. James*

    Part of the issue here is that you’re projecting your insecurities onto your audience. The reality is that anyone with project management experience knows that every time you hand off a project, errors happen. I once had to review a project to write a report, and I knew, with about 95% accuracy, when staff rotated–there was always a spike in errors. I seriously doubt anyone expects you to know the answers off the top of your head. Further, a PM really can’t know everything about a project off the top of their head; that’s what documentation is for. They should know where to find it, ideally, but again, pass a project around a bit and it gets hard to even do that–and we all know it.

    Another thing to consider: What is the intent of the question? It’s pretty rare that anyone needs that information right now; usually there’s a longer timeline. The question isn’t necessarily to get an immediate answer, often it’s to spur you to get the answer. That you have a concrete and practical plan for obtaining it shows that you’ll get it to them when they need it. Believe me, if they need it sooner they will let you know!!

    Finally, as a fellow scientist in a commercial field I’ll tell you what my paleo mentor told me: Your most marketable product is your integrity. The instant you lose that, you’ve removed yourself from the marketplace. This includes saying when you don’t know something. The instant you start making up information to make someone else happy, rather than standing by what the data say (or don’t, in this case), you have become part of the cancer eating at the heart of science itself. (My mentor did not mince words.) You know what you know, and you don’t know what you don’t know. If someone expects you to know what you can’t know, that’s THEIR failing. For my part, I add the addendum that people often live or die based on what we scientists in the private sector say. A miscalculation is no different from manslaughter; the consequences can easily be identical. It is a moral imperative to be crystal clear on what you know and what you do not. In my experience it annoys people, but in the end they respect you more for refusing to bend.

  30. Luke G*

    As a scientist, one of my constant irritations is people in the PM world who answer every question as though they know the answer 100%, even when it’s just a best guess. We get our marching orders, come back in a month and say “There! We’ve proven that the product can etch diamond, and it weighs less than 30 pounds, just like you asked!” only to be told “Oh, well, really what the customers want is a product to crush gravel, and it really needs to weigh under 10 pounds, why did you make it so big and expensive?” Or vice versa. Take the time to get the right answer, THEN give it.

    If you’re new, it’s also worth making the distinction (as someone referred to above) between “I don’t know” and “we don’t know.” The former is something that is a known quantity but you just don’t know it. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to happen when you’re new, but should happen less often as you master the job. If you don’t know the exact numbers but know where they’re recorded and can get them for me that day, no problem. The latter is something the organization itself doesn’t know- the data wasn’t recorded properly, or we never used to test at those temperatures, or whatever. That’s a bigger deal but also less likely to be your direct problem. Either it didn’t used to be a big deal, or it was a big deal and your predecessor messed up. Focus on making sure that information is available going forward, under your watch.

  31. CatBookMom*

    This is a procedural issue, not a big deal, but … When did Inc. become a subscription site? It’s now acting like a paywalled site, with only a couple of ‘free’ reads/month. The New Yorker site has always been paywalled, limited. But this is new with Inc, or at least I’m just noticing it.
    Just wanted to inquire. Ask A Manager is the only thing I try to/want to read at either site, so I miss those replies.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Huh. I must be mixing the two short-named sites in my head. But really…it makes sense. I look forward to easy one-off, pay-for-one-click tech to hit the internet.

  32. Not Australian*

    I did very well at a job interview once by saying “I don’t know, but I know how to find out”. They just wanted to be sure I wasn’t going to bullsh*t and make up answers, I think.

  33. EngGirl*

    This comes up for me at least once a week LOL.

    “EngGirl, why did we set up this thing this way? This doesn’t make any sense and we hate it”

    “Uh… well I was in college (or high school) when that was set up, and no one who was in that department at that time is here anymore… so I have no idea why they did it that way, but I’ll see what I can dig up!”

  34. LetMeLookThatUp*

    I work in prospect research for a nonprofit. I’ve often joked that the answer to the question, “how many prospect researchers does it take to change a lightbulb?” is “let me look that up and get back to you.” I don’t EVER expect anyone to know the answer to every question I ask them in the workplace. If someone answers honestly that they don’t know something, but can offer a plan for finding out, I am happy. If they don’t know, but can tell me where the information SHOULD be and why it isn’t there, I’m not necessarily happy (I want my info!), but I trust their competence and am content with their response.

  35. Anon for this here post*

    I usually blurt out “I don’t know”, but will follow it up with “but I will check and get back to you”. Sometimes I’ll say, “I don’t know but will check with boss/coworker and get back to you.” Even if I *think* I know the answer, I won’t say it until I’m 100% sure/have it confirmed with someone.

  36. AEK*

    My go to answer is “I don’t have all the information I need to confidently answer that right now and I don’t want to guess and possibly lead us down the wrong path so …I’ll get back to you or we’ll need to gather xyz data or I’ll need to confer with Joaquin or whatever the path forward is. Or sometimes it’s “if I had to guess I would say xyz”. It all depends on what the information you don’t know is and what the consequences are of being wrong. You might also try percentage confidence if you are making an educated guess. “If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say xyz. I have about 75% confidence in that answer but would prefer to get more data” or “if I had to guess I’d say xyz but I only have a bout 20% confidence in that answer so don’t hold me to it”

    I use that framing becuase a lot of people will guess and sound confident. You’re making clear you aren’t willing to do that. Nto that you couldn’t, you just don’t want to.

  37. Tuesday*

    Trying to get answers from someone and getting the feeling they’re BS’ing you is the worst. Let people know what you do know and what you’re working on finding out. I used to be more stressed about saying “I don’t know,” but then I saw someone who I think of as knowing practically everything say, “I don’t know” in response to a question, and I thought it was so classy. She said, “I don’t know,” and then explained relevant background information on the subject, and she came off looking more competent and together than ever.

  38. Raida*

    Most people would significantly prefer being told “don’t know, here’s why, can we agree on this approach to solve the problem.” than any prevaricating over actually knowing the answer.

    If you really want to drive the message home you can lead with “Well I’m not going to lie to you, the issues are X, Y, Z.” or “Well I could lie to you about my experience in this project but that won’t actually solve anything.”

  39. me*

    I think you had a great answer and your colleagues are weird. As others have said, it’s always better to say “I don’t know but I’ll find out.” Ask clarifying questions as needed. Repeat the task back to them to confirm what’s needed.

    Also re: asking questions, I vastly prefer that people ask me lots of questions if they don’t understand what I want them to do especially the first time they’re doing something. It is a huge waste of time for them to go off and do something that is the exact opposite of what we need. For example, I once asked an intern to find cardboard boxes that were a certain size so we could ship some inflexible items. She spent 3 hours looking on various shipping websites and gave me a full report of all the different size boxes available at places like UPS, FedEx, etc. (and there was only one box at one location that worked for what we needed).

    People cannot read my mind, as much as I’d like them to be able to. Communication is a two-way street: if someone doesn’t understand, it’s entirely possible that I haven’t done my best to explain exactly what I’m looking for, or that the person I’m training doesn’t have the background / organizational experience to know what I mean.

  40. 4 eyed librarian*

    It’s not that I don’t know, it’s that I don’t know yet. As a newer librarian, the first thing I learned in consults is that’s it’s perfectly ok to say “I don’t know”. I usually follow it up with “but I can look into it and get back to you”. I did that in one of my job interviews, learned how to do it (it was something in Microsoft word, for an office job) and brought it up in our second interview that I learned how to do it

    As long as you’re willing to learn/find out, it’s ok to not know. You can’t be expected to know everything

  41. Workfromhome*

    I also think there is an important distinction between “I dont know the answer but I can find it ” and “I DO know that the data does not exist”.
    In the OP case there may be answers you dont know but what you do know is that the past projects didn’t consider that question or that all the data required to answer the question was put through the shredder and can never be recreated.

    People will sometimes ignore this knowledge for fear of past mistakes being seen as their fault or as deflecting blame on someone who is not there to defend themselves. As long as you know the facts and are unemotional about it I think its fine.

    I prefer” I dont have an answer to that or I know that data is not available” To I dont know. as in

    “What was the angle of the exhaust port on the first death star”

    “I dont have an answer to that. The schematics were all on the Death Star and Dart Vader killed the orgional engineer. Why do you need to know …maybe there is another way we can help you”

  42. Silly Season is just Beginning*

    As other commenters have said, it is just not humanly possible to know everything. It. Just. Isn’t. And it is much better to just say you don’t know but can look into it further (after which, the possibility exists that you still might not know!). OP, you absolutely handled this the right way.

  43. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    Only idiots are sure of anything! The more you learn, the more you know you don’t know so….

    I remember struggling with some science while training to be a breastfeeding counsellor, but I was reassured that I didn’t need to know it by heart, I just needed to know where I could find the info. With internet, the info has got that much easier to access, I’m usually looking stuff up on our website as I talk through an issue with a mother on the phone.

  44. Nursecrys*

    I work in Healthcare IT and we often get PMs with no experience in Healthcare. The ones who succeed are the ones who state they don’t know, then follow up to learn where they have knowledge gaps. Even better are the ones who reach out prior to a project meeting and ask questions to aid their understanding beforehand. It is so much worse to not admit I don’t know and be totally wrong than to say I don’t know but I will find out!

Comments are closed.