<<< Back Posted: June 2020

Aaaaaagh! I Don’t Know!

I’ve lost count, but I’ve probably had hundreds of coaching conversations where the challenge at hand was that the coachee did not want to admit not knowing something when asked. Sometimes, no matter what was asked! Being asked a question one doesn’t have an answer to can be especially uncomfortable when giving a presentation, particularly in front of a group of people important to one’s career. 

Granted, this is a culturally sensitive topic. Some cultures expect the boss to know more than those reporting to them. At the other extreme, there are cultures that see the courage to admit not knowing as a strength.

Needless to say, many executives prefer to manage divisions that fall under their own expertise. And the desire to be a specialist versus a generalist is unique per individual.

Consider these two situations:

A few months ago, I was coaching an executive who had just been promoted into a position in an area where she had relatively little knowledge or expertise. She had to manage specialists. Her newly acquired area was absolutely essential to the success of the business. She confessed her lack of technical knowledge, and admitted that she was dependent on the expertise of her direct reports in order to succeed. In addition, they were so good at what they did that she needed to motivate them to stay with the organization and perform well, and not be bought off by a competitor. 

Not knowing everything (and not needing to know) – and showing visible comfort with that – were top of the agenda. Oh, did we brainstorm! How can one respond to a question one cannot answer? Here are our co-created ideas:

At a certain point, our coaching conversation shifted. We discussed how my coachee could figure out what she did need to know, and what she didn’t need to know (and probably even shouldn’t know). Consider the opportunity cost of learning about every detail – spending one’s time getting overly technical – versus knowing enough to be able to make sound decisions and focus on the big picture. She needed to stay strategic, not only at her level, but to also be a sparring partner with her boss.

So the next time your coachee screams “Aaaaaagh! I don’t know!”, partner with them to:

And the cherry on the cake? Once your coachee completes this brainstorm list, they will be able to make use of a number of options both to keep the discussion moving forward and to look comfortable while presenting in front of a group of people when they don't have an answer.

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