At some point, as a leader, you're going to be in a meeting, presentation or even a press conference. And ideally, if you prepare well, you'll be able to answer all the questions others throw at you.

But what if you can't? What if the question could open up a legal can of worms if you answer, or what if you've prepared but just don't have the information and don't want to look stupid? What do you do then?

Pivot and deflect, right?

Please, for the love of everything in your business, don't.

If you're somehow not already familiar, pivot and deflect is a strategy often found in politics, but which business leaders often pull from their toolboxes, too. It means that, if someone puts you in an uncomfortable situation on a topic, you shift from the original question or point (pivot) and draw attention to something you are prepared or do want to talk about (deflect). In theory, the strategy lets you maintain and project a sense of control and intelligence.

But there are at least four reasons why I think pivot and deflect is a horrible choice.

1. You leave people wanting. I don't care if the information you give through pivot and deflect could fill a book. If it's not the right information that actually satisfies the other person's curiosity, your listener is going to be annoyed, not only that they didn't get an answer, but that you just disrespected them by wasting their time to benefit yourself.

2. Trust shatters. Trust is built when people recognize that you're going to answer them with integrity, and when they feel like you're really hearing them out. When you pivot and deflect, however, listeners get the impression that there's something else that's more important than the people right in front of you, and that you're willing to throw them under the bus. Even if your intentions are good, they have the sense that you're hiding something and that you don't have the spine necessary to be honest.

3. Authenticity goes on vacation. This ties to the above point. People are very clear that they want authentic leaders who are willing to be vulnerable and who aren't wishy-washy. Pivot and deflect, however, forces you to pretend that all is well, even if it isn't, hiding weaknesses.

4. You insult the intelligence of the listener. Here's a newsflash. Pivot and deflect is not a new strategy. People are smart, and they can recognize exactly what you're doing. Continuing to use pivot and deflect ignores this reality and presents listeners as cognitively less-than. Listeners subsequently are put on the offensive and have to get over this insult emotionally before they can continue civil debate with you.

So here's what you do.

Just Tell. The. Truth.

If you don't know something, say so. If you can't answer for legal reasons, just say that. If you don't want to answer because there's more to review or information you don't have, just say that. The trick is, always extend an invitation to cooperate for an answer and be clear about your rationale and/or status. For example, you could say any of the following:

  • "Since I don't have the legal background to answer that properly, I unfortunately can't answer that at the moment, but I'm happy to consult with our attorney and have them provide their opinion."
  • "That's an excellent question! Right now I can tell you a, b and c. That initially suggests that [conclusion]. But because this issue is so complex, we also want to be careful to look at x, y and z. My office is in the process of collecting data in those areas, and we expect our investigations there to wrap up in the next week so we can present a more thorough response for you."
  • "In full disclosure, I'm not familiar with that. But if you'll forward me those studies you cited, my office will review them and get a statement to you."
  • "I'm not able to confirm [the exact number, the date, etc.], but I certainly can do some fact checking on that and get back to you."
  • "While I absolutely recognize the gravity here and want a resolution, too, I simply don't feel comfortable answering that without first [actions you'd want to take]. I'm eager to work with your office [or other agency] on that."
  • "Unfortunately, that's not within my department, but I can refer you to [name], who can do that question more justice."

Notice that all of the responses above indicate that, while you don't know or are somehow lacking, you're willing to do additional work or take a next step. You're not just leaving the listener hanging, but instead are giving them a behavior they then can hold you accountable for.

So the big takeaway is, your audience is intelligent, deserving of relevant information they ask for and will follow you much more easily if you don't try to gloss over your circumstances. In the modern workplace where transparency has enormous value, pivot and deflect simply isn't a viable strategy anymore. Truth, however, will never go out of fashion.

Published on: Aug 15, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.