Sometimes your employees will say “I don’t know”

In this episode, I shared a story about a recent conversation with another business leader. The business leader said that he had to do all the client meetings because his employees would often say, “I don’t know,” to some client questions.

I get why the business owner, the leader in this situation, was a bit upset – but he took it to an extreme, deciding that no employee would talk to a client by themselves. When I heard this story, I began to gently challenge the leader to take this opportunity to coach – not to take work back from his team.

“I Don’t Know” is an Acceptable Answer – Listen Now!

“I don’t know” is a perfectly fine answer

I believe that it IS ok for an employee to not know all the answers. Heck, I believe that about most people – even the professionals we expect to know all the answers, like doctors and engineers. Admitting you don’t have the answer is perfectly fine, as long as it’s followed with, “But I know someone who does,” or, “I know where to find the solution.”

The leader in this story had gotten so frustrated with his employee that he demoted that individual to a lesser role in the organization. I asked him how often he knew every answer to every question on the spot. He said about 50% of the time. So I then asked him what he says when he doesn’t know the answer, and it was a variety of, “I’ll look into it and let you know what I find.”

Saying “I don’t know” is better than pretending to know

So I then asked him why his employee couldn’t have answered that question the same way. He had a whammy of a realization at that moment and recognized he had approached it all wrong. In doing so, he had demoralized his employee, and he had added work back onto his plate. He course corrected this over the next 30 days, and by the time we all spoke again, the employee was back to client meetings and had an answer ready for when she didn’t know something, and the business owner was much happier!

Here’s the deal – it’s ok to say, “I don’t have the answer, but I can find it.” To anyone. At any time. The truth is, most people who are asking the question gladly accept that response, knowing their question will be addressed the right way. They would much rather hear that than being told that you do have the answer (when you actually don’t) and then watching to flub your way through a half-assed response. I would venture to guess that most people would rather hear, “I don’t know,” period – full stop – than someone pretending they do know the answer when they really don’t.

How to lead employees who say “I don’t know”

The good news is, this is a fairly easy problem to fix. When you are coaching and training your team, give them the words on how to answer questions they don’t know the answer to – it’s as simple as, “I don’t know, but I will find out,” or, “I have made note of that question and I need to talk to my team first to make sure I give you the right information.” Let your team know it’s ok to answer questions that way, as long as they do follow up on the question.

Over time, they will build a database of answers to a lot of the questions asked, becoming a more well-rounded team member, all because you gave them the ok to not know everything about everything – and you showed them how to deal with questions they couldn’t answer.