columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I am in a scientific field in a project management role. I have been at my company for just over a year and it's been hard to get a solid grip on how some things are done around here. Overall, though, I feel like I'm doing pretty well.

My question is about how to handle myself when I don't have all of the necessary information. For example, Project X was handled by a project manager who left right after I started here and passed it to another colleague who then left a few months later. Now I have responsibility for Project X. An issue has come up dealing with a topic from two years ago that I am being asked to handle. I have done as much research as possible, but there are still some knowledge gaps due to 1) my lack of experience in my role, 2) information I don't have because this occurred before I started, and 3) missing data because of the project's being passed around so much.

In a recent  meeting, colleagues were pressing me for data that I simply did not have. I ended up explaining that I am new to the project and my predecessor's predecessor did not keep records of the exact data that they were looking for. I laid out a plan to rectify the issue, got general agreement for the timeline I suggested, and set in motion a plan to solve the problem. But I can't help but feel like I could have handled it better. To me, admitting that I didn't have the information they wanted sounds at best like a cop-out and at worst completely ignorant. Is there a better way to handle this type of situation? I've had co-workers warn me about asking too many questions or admitting I don't know something, because people will think I'm not fit for my position.

Green responds:

In any job, there will be times when you don't know something. Acknowledging that -- and saying you'll find out and circle back, when that's possible -- is far, far better than trying to bluff your way through or risking giving inaccurate information.

In fact, one of the things that people who are great at their work and widely respected have in common is that they're willing to say "I don't know." It actually makes them look more confident and credible because they're secure in their overall competence and standing, and they know that they don't have to (and can't) have every single answer.

I'm curious about these co-workers who are telling you that admitting you don't know something will reflect badly on you. Are they inexperienced themselves? Not terribly respected? Or tipping you off to some dysfunctional aspect of your company culture? The only other likely explanation would be that you haven't prepared with info that someone in your role should be expected to have and they're telling you that inartfully, but it would still be pretty bad advice -- because what do they think you should do, bluff? There's no faster way to destroy your credibility if the bluff doesn't work.

Generally, the best thing to do when you don't know something is to be straightforward. These are all good things to say when that happens:
* "That's a good question, and I don't actually know. Let me find out and get back to you."
* "You know, I'm not sure. I think it might be X, but I can't say with certainty. I'll find out."
In the example where your predecessor didn't keep the data in question: "This is something I've been trying to figure out, but previously we didn't keep data on this. We're going to track it going forward, but unfortunately it means we don't have answers to questions like that yet."

Straightforward, not defensive, not BS'ing anyone.

If you played it any differently -- avoided the question, took your best guess and later turned out to be wrong, or otherwise weren't up front -- people would notice. And generally people will really not be pleased by that approach. (That's especially true with guessing! When you're guessing, you have to be clear that it's a guess, or people may act on the potentially wrong information you've just provided.)

And if you feel like you're having to say "I don't know" more than you're comfortable with, you can always check with your boss about it. It's perfectly reasonable to say something like, "I'm getting a lot of questions that I don't know the answer to, like X and Y. Is that about what you'd expect, or should I be able to answer those sorts of things by now?"

But really, it's pretty normal not to know the answers to everything people ask you.

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