Brandt On Leadership -- Questionable Logic

Nov. 15, 2006
There's an art to knowing how not to answer a straight question.

Many first-time managers live in fear of the day when their bosses will ask them a question that they cannot answer. They fear this because, after a young lifetime spent almost entirely in fancy schools amidst exams and quizzes, they have been brainwashed into thinking that:

  1. All questions are answerable;
  2. All wrong or missing answers inevitably lead to bad things, including but not limited to Daddy cutting off the credit card if the grades don't improve.

What these neophytes fail to understand is that it is a normal part of corporate life not to know an answer -- and that, in fact, the higher they ascend the corporate ladder, the less likely they are to know anything about their jobs or departments at any given time. What counts is not what you know, but how well you manage your complete ignorance when a fire-breathing boss bursts into your office at 3:30 on Friday afternoon demanding to know exactly what-in-the-name-of-God happened with the Wycliffe account. A quick guide to possible responses:

"That's a good question." Possibly the worst answer in corporate history, as it clearly indicates that not only don't you have an answer, but you're also not smart enough to have even thought of the question. Or to pretend that you had. Or to have spent the 10 nanoseconds that even a complete moron (your boss's words, whether he says them aloud or not) would have needed to know that the question exists in the first place. Make sure you like your job before using this one, because afterward there's not a chance in hell you're getting another one, at least at this company.

"I don't know." This little ditty can be tricky, but is potentially more useful than it at first seems. A lot depends on delivery; spoken softly after a pregnant pause, in an oddly cheerful, almost wistful tone, you will come off as an old soul who has truly considered the Wycliffe account and all its broader ramifications for the human condition. If you can pull it off, chuckling slightly as you appear to consider the humorous absurdity of Wycliffe, your winning smile will disarm your interrogator, who will conclude that your non-answer reflects not your complete unfamiliarity with the subject at hand, but instead your innate depth and wisdom. Then again, if you pronounce it "I dunno" with that deer-in-the-headlights look you've got right now, you might as well go back to "That's a good question."

"That's a complex issue." This is an excellent stall tactic with significant ancillary benefits, implying as it does that: 1) You know enough about the Wycliffe situation to appreciate both its importance and its subtle, nuanced nature, and 2) You know your boss will want a thorough explanation. (Most fire-breathers, of course, want nothing of the sort, and will simply move toward the next cubicle in search of someone who will grovel appropriately.) And while this answer does require a certain amount of chutzpa -- you're basically betting that with the weekend looming, no boss in his right mind will want an in-depth meeting on a problem account -- you're almost certain to have the discussion postponed until Monday, by which time you'll know enough about Wycliffe to blame somebody else.

"I was about to ask you that!" The nuclear option, which means you've got one shot to make it work, a shot for which you'd better have skin like bark and a set of brass cannonballs. The key is to say this in such an indignant, imperious manner, with such an underlying assumption that your boss is responsible for the Wycliffe mess, that he will become confused and feel as if he should be answering you. It's high-risk, yet in the right situation (i.e., with a boss who's unsure of himself or of what you might do) this stratagem could rock him so hard that he'll not only leave your office without saying another word, he may never speak to you again.

No questions asked.

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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