How to Say, “I Don’t Know” and Keep Your Job

How to Say, “I Don't Know” and Keep Your Job

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How easy is it for you to say, “I don't know,” or “I need help?” If you're like most leaders I meet (titled leaders or not), you might have trouble admitting you don't know or that you need help. That's because your work environment values certainty over learning.

Many of you work in places where the managers want certainty as opposed to learning. However, you can create a learning environment for yourself, and keep your job.

One organization, Acme, decided to change its organization as part of its quest for business agility. Instead of managers being responsible for single-function teams, the managers were now responsible for cross-functional teams.

Abby, a director, was comfortable supporting these managers. However, she needed to spend much more time coaching the managers. She felt as if she didn't have enough time to do “both” her jobs: leading and serving the managers, and her work as a director.

She needed help. She decided to talk with the managers first.

Explain Your Concerns

At the next manager meeting, Abby explained where her time was going and how she felt overloaded.

She then said, “Instead of learning separately, I'd like us to learn together. You might be able to coach each other. Then if you want or need more private coaching, I can do that. And I'll see if we need training as a cohort.” Abby wanted to support the managers to create their peer management team.

Abby decided that she wanted the managers to work together first, to learn together and coach each other. Then, if they still needed her, she could offer team-based explanations or private coaching.

That might not work for your team. However, it did for Abby and the managers she led and supported. They took charge of their learning and practice.

Then, she met with her manager to explain the pressures she felt.

Explain Your Pressures

Abby met with Dan, the VP, the next day. She said, “I realize you thought the reorganization first was a good idea. However, the managers don't quite understand what they're supposed to do. I'm spending a ton of time with them. That means I need a little relief from some of my other work.”

Dan frowned and said, “I need you to do all of it.”

Abby said, “I realize that. However, I need to choose what to do now and what to do later. Let's review what I'm doing for and with the managers I serve and what I'm delivering for you.

She showed him her management decision time for several key decisions, with pictures and data as in Why Minimize Management Decision Time​. Because Abby had data, they were able to discuss alternatives. They used the Rule of Three to develop and assess alternatives.

Abby was still quite busy, but she felt as if she had just enough time to manage everything she needed to do.

How Abby Kept Her Job and Said She Didn't Know

Abby first gathered some data, so she knew where she spent her time. She admitted she didn't know how to do everything and asked for help. She didn't try to do it “all.” Specifically, she tried these ideas:

  • Gather the data you think will help explain your concerns to other people.
  • Explain your worries.
  • Explain the pressures you feel.
  • Enlist their help and ask for what you want.

You don't have to be perfect in any part of your job. I assume since you're reading this newsletter, you want to make sure you do the best job possible. I have found great value in admitting when I don't know and need help. If I can get past the vulnerability and fear of admitting I don't know, I often discover others will support me. Together, we all win.

If you liked this, you'll like the ideas in the Modern Management Made Easy books. This idea is from Book 1: Practical Ways to Manage Yourself.

Learn with Johanna

I'm thrilled to announce that the ​Modern Management Made Easy books are done! They are available on all platforms, in ebook and print. The audio books are next on my list of things to do.

See Distributed Agile Success for all of my self-study classes with Mark Kilby based on our book, From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams: Collaborate to Deliver.

Now that I'm done with the intense publishing work, I'm planning the writing and management workshops for this year. I am sure I will be able to tell you what they are in the next newsletter.

New to the Pragmatic Manager?

Are you new to the Pragmatic Manager newsletter? See previous issues.

Here are links you might find useful:

Till next time,


© 2021 Johanna Rothman

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