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Knowing and Guessing

The line between average and exceptional work performance is dotted with ordinary day-by-day behaviors. I was reminded of that line recently. My husband was explaining to a nurse how he'd inadvertently taken the last dose of the live typhoid virus on the wrong day and wondered if he needed to retake the sequence prior to our Africa trip. "No," she commented, "I think you'll be fine." We both knew she was guessing.

While rolling down my sleeve from the next set of immunizations, a different nurse poked her head into the room. "I overheard your conversation at the desk." she said to Dan. "We've never had that situation, so I thought it best to call the drug manufacturer for advice. Turns out you need to retake the entire dosage." We were grateful she took the extra step.

It's not possible to know all the answers to all the questions you'll get tossed in the workplace. But, be willing to say when you don't. That's better than giving out misinformation or guessing at an answer without making it clear it's a guess. People who are winning at working add four words - "but I'll find out." And they do find out and get back to the person. That extra step differentiates their performance in the workplace.

Jeff was already in the department when I was hired to manage it. "I don't know" was his typical response when queried beyond the surface status reports of his projects. At first, I expected Jeff to automatically find out the answers to my questions and inform me, his new boss. But he never did. Jeff managed to train me to follow up to his "I don't know," with "please find out and tell me."

Jeff worked for me for two years and at the time I moved on, I was still asking him to find out. For Jeff and people like Jeff, "I don't know" is a habitual way to reduce their task list. To them, "I don't know" ends it. What they don't realize is what else it ends in the minds of their bosses, clients or customers.

It baffles me that someone thinks saying "I don't know" suffices when it involves their work responsibilities. It baffles me how frequently people offer their best guesses like factual answers. And it baffles me, in my twenty years in management, how surprisingly few people took the small step to find out. Those who did stood out. They went from guessing to knowing. Find out answers and you'll build knowledge that differentiates you.

Want to be winning at working? Stop guessing; start knowing. The next time you find yourself venturing a guess on an important answer, pause. Then reframe your response with, "I don't know for sure, but I'll find out for you." Not only will you be adding to your knowledge base, but when you find out and follow up with the person, you'll be building your credibility and crossing an important performance line.

(c) 2005 Nan S. Russell. All rights reserved.

Sign up to receive Nan's free biweekly eColumn at Nan Russell has spent over twenty years in management, most recently with QVC as a Vice President. She has held leadership positions in Human Resource Development, Communication, Marketing and line Management. Nan has a B.A. from Stanford University and M.A. from the University of Michigan. Currently working on her first book, Winning at Working: 10 Lessons Shared, Nan is a writer, columnist, small business owner, and on-line instructor.

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