What to do when you don’t have the answer.
Just say No or is it I don’t know?
How often do you say, “I don’t know?”
How often do you say, “I forgot to do that?”
How often do you say, “Sorry, I didn’t do it?”
To most engineers, scientists, and technical professionals these are deadly statements. No self-respecting engineer wants to say, “Oh, I forgot to do that”. And no self-respecting engineer wants to say, “I don’t know the answer to that”.
I can tell you, after managing engineers, scientists, and technologists for many, many years, if you want to really tick me off, give me an answer when you really don’t have the answer. Give me an excuse when you just forgot. Give me an answer when you were just too busy to get to it.
Probably more than most people, we engineers, scientists, and technologists think we are always supposed to have an answer. And not only an answer, but the right answer. I’ve watched engineers “dance” around topics because they just can’t bring themselves to admit they don’t have the answer, or admit that they just made a mistake.
I learned my lessons and got my chops when I was in college. I was raised on a farm and rather than work on the farm every summer during college I worked for Del Monte Corporation. It was better pay than working on the farm and it gave me exposure to something other than the family farm.
I worked in a “weight and inspection station”. This is the station that receives produce, in this case, tomatoes, from farmers. The trucks that bring in the produce are weighed as they arrive at the station, the produce is inspected and graded, the produce is off-loaded at the station, the trucks are once again weighed empty.
The tomatoes are inspected by government inspectors and inspection tags are attached to the produce load. The farmer is paid for the full tonnage of the tomatoes minus the percentage of the tomatoes that have been found to be rejected during inspection. The process involves a lot of weighing, tagging, inspecting, and reweighing. Numbers and tags are flying everywhere and in those days these tasks were not done in as automated a fashion as they are today. At the end of each 8-hour shift the weights of all the loaded trucks, minus their empty weights, should add up to the total of the tomatoes delivered to the station.
I was called a weight master and, during my 8-shift, I was in charge of weighing the trucks loaded and empty and ensuring the inspection numbers were accurately recorded for each load delivered.
Once or twice a week, during any weight inspector’s 8-shift (there were three of us) we could expect that our numbers, at the end of our shift, wouldn’t add up. Even if we were very, very careful it seemed to happen anyway.
Now at the end of my shift, if the numbers didn’t add up, it meant that I had made a mistake, somewhere, somehow, sometime during my shift. And after looking at the numbers a couple of times, if I didn’t find the error, it meant that we were not going to find the error. It was a recording mistake and that was that.
At the end of my shift I had two choices. I could tell my colleagues on the next shift of the error so they could start fresh with an adjustment, or I could keep my mouth shut and let them wrestle with the error as if it might have occurred on their sift.
I’m not sure I understand why, or what I had been taught, but my approach was to be “straight up” with my colleagues. If my numbers were off, the next shift knew by how much and that it had happened on my watch. No one on the next shift nor my manager ever criticized me for making an error. They knew I was doing my best. I didn’t make many errors, but when I did I told them about it right away. They just acknowledged it and we all went on from there.
It wasn’t until many, many years later that I found out from my father that one of the things my co-workers at Del Monte really appreciated was that when they came in to begin their shift they knew exactly what the situation was. I always told them whenever I had made a mistake and they could take it from there. Apparently that was rather unique. Other weight masters weren’t so forth coming with errors they had made.
I kept that philosophy throughout my engineering career and beyond. I always taught my direct reports that “I don’t know” is a perfectly good answer. I also taught my direct reports that I’m not too concerned about a mistake that happens once in a while. I am concerned about mistakes that are repeated.
So I’m not suggesting that you always answer with “I don’t know”. I’m looking for patterns. If a direct report is “always” telling me “I don’t know” or always telling me “I forgot to do it”, then we are in big trouble. But I don’t expect my direct reports to be geniuses or to have every answer to every question I might ask right at their fingertips. But I sure as heck expect them to be able to find the answer, given time.
So to all of you who think that you can’t answer a question with “I don’t know,…. but I’ll find out” or who think you can’t once in a while answer “I just forgot to do that… but I’ll get on it right away and have it to you ….” think again. If you aren’t being honest with your manager then you either have the wrong manager (you are working for Attila the Hun) or you are underestimating your manager and you need to have a talk with him or her.
Honesty is always the best policy. Straight up information is always the best approach. No one should expect you to be perfect, not your manager, not your customer, not even you.
If your work environment can’t abide an honest “I don’t know” or “I forgot to do it” then it will grind you down in the long run any way.