Learning & Development

The Problem with Squishy Answers and How to Stop Them

Part of the burden of being the boss is making the important decisions: whether it’s necessary to authorize costly overtime to meet a production deadline; if the company should apologize to a customer over a disagreement or stand firm in its position; if a supplier should be replaced; etc.

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The Problem with Uncertainty

Effective decision-making requires access to the best-possible information. That’s why it’s so frustrating when managers asking for information from staff hear responses like:

“I think so.”

“Probably.”

“It should be.”

These responses not only fail to provide an answer to managers’ questions when making tough decisions but also create additional uncertainty and can raise new questions and concerns.

But often, these are just the kinds of answers bosses will get. Particularly for younger employees or those new to the workforce or to a particular role or organization, it can be scary to make a guarantee or speak with certainty.

It feels much safer to hedge one’s bets with a qualifier or to act as an adviser pointing out a consideration as opposed to an authority educating others.

Why You Should Expect Confident Responses

Understandably, inexperienced staff are often genuinely unsure of the answer to a question that’s posed to them. And while it’s OK to not always know the answer, it’s not always OK to leave the inquiry at “I think so.”

Instead, employees need to own the question and work to find a more concrete answer. Anything less is effectively passing the assignment back to the boss who asked the question in the first place, putting the burden on him or her to fill in the gaps.

Employers shouldn’t expect inexperienced staff to always have all the answers. But they should expect them to make the judgments they were hired to make, if that is indeed part of their job description.

And as employees grow and develop, they need to understand that the qualifications for advancement will generally include the ability to absorb and process facts and act or draw conclusions decisively.

Teaching Staff to Speak with Certainty and Confidence

Here are some strategies for avoiding getting “squishy” responses:

Communicate expectations. Properly setting expectations is key in so many aspects of employee management, and here, it’s no different. If managers expect qualified responses that depend on known facts, they should make that clear. Let staff know the information being requested is necessary to make a decision, and it needs to be solid enough to support that decision.At the same time, it may be OK if there are some unknowns. Sometimes, the best an organization can do is make an educated guess using the best-available information. Managers don’t want employees dragging their feet on a response because they don’t have the perfect answer just yet. Sometimes, there is no perfect answer.

Be clear about what’s at stake. Sometimes, employees hedge their answers because they are afraid of the possible consequences for getting them wrong. Be clear up front about what’s at stake and why the information is needed. This helps focus the inquiry’s context.

Maintain accountability. Accountability here doesn’t necessarily mean employees are held completely accountable for decisions made based on their input. But it does mean that employees should be expected to give their best efforts using the information available to provide the requested input, along with any unknowns or assumptions.

If employees continually provide qualified, half answers because they simply aren’t doing their due diligence or are pushing their work onto someone else, they need to be held accountable for completing the assigned task.

Help them help you. If a manager is consistently getting answers like, “That is probably correct, assuming that …”; “We are on solid ground if we do ABC, as long as …”; or, “That depends on …,” he or she should take a step back and recognize that what the employee is really saying is, “I don’t have all the information.”

It’s frustrating for managers to get only partial answers when asking for information, but they aren’t powerless. There are a number of strategies that can be used to effectively train staff on how to properly respond to a request for information.