On not knowing

Some people are hard to read. Some situations are complicated, with pieces moving behind the scenes in a Rube Goldberg mess of not-quite interlocking puzzle pieces. Sometimes people intentionally withhold information – maybe they were told in confidence, or perhaps there’s an HR reason for keeping a secret. Sometimes it’s none of your business. Or it is, but there’s a reason why you can’t know. Sometimes it just didn’t occur to anyone to tell you. Many moons ago I had a top secret security clearance for a summer internship (really!), and my boss told me, “just because someone in another part of the building gets a top secret document, it doesn’t mean they’re going to pop over to your office and show you.” (aww…)

It’s frustrating not to know. And, in fact, this can be one of the most difficult parts of moving from a management role back to individual contributor – you don’t change, but your access to information does. Conversations that used to be part of your daily routine are now off limits, and though you can frequently guess at underlying truths, now you’re on the other side of the scrim.

In the absence of information, people make stuff up.
– Noah Blumenthal, Be the Hero

Unfortunately, a lack of information can take on a life of its own. Your team is interested in what’s going on, and inventive – if you aren’t constantly keeping them up to date, they’ll curve fit their own narratives to the existing data. These stories are almost always pessimistic, occasionally paranoid versions of events, which really isn’t the movie you want playing behind their eyes. At the individual level, for example, a lack of feedback can lead to self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, demoralization, and quitting. At the organizational level, a lack of transparency can lead to gossip, wild conspiracy theories, fear, demoralization, and increased attrition.

One-off data dumps, especially in formal events like quarterly company meetings or performance evaluations, aren’t enough to keep speculation in check. Not only is there ample opportunity for confabulation in-between events, but the information will naturally be viewed more skeptically, as the “official line,” not the real deal. Frequent feedback and consistent transparency build long-term trust, even when the news is bad, and constant honest communication creates a safe environment for people to ask questions about their concerns.

Sometimes secrets must be kept, of course. As a manager, there will come a time when you’ll be asked an uncomfortable, direct question, and you’ll know the answer, but won’t be able to tell. In some cases you’ll even be obligated to feign ignorance – in the case of an upcoming layoff, for instance, or a pending merger. There’s no good way to answer some questions other than to say that you can’t, that you could if you would, or that even if you did know you wouldn’t be able to discuss. But this last is rare, and most often you can at least explain why you can’t answer, e.g., you can’t break confidence, it’s HR-related, the numbers haven’t been released yet, the decision hasn’t been announced publicly, etc.

To be clear – you can’t and shouldn’t always tell everyone everything, but honesty can’t just be a tactic for achieving objectives. It needs to be embedded in your culture as a core value, a fundamental part of how people interact with and treat each other. This is a necessary precondition for building psychological safety in your team and organization. If it isn’t a core value, you need to get out of there and find something new. The longer you stay, the more you’ll be tainted by association (even if personally honest), and the only lessons you’ll learn will be painful and personally damaging.

And then one day, you’ll be the one waiting for an answer. And rationally you’ll know that there must be good reasons for the silence, but you’ll find yourself making up increasingly bizarre scenarios to explain the situation. It’s hard not to get caught up in an internal monologue with you cast as the victim, and your interlocutor as the villain, even when you’re on guard against this natural human impulse. You can’t always change the situation, but you can at least change how you interpret the data.

When you find yourself labeling or otherwise vilifying others, stop and ask: Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do what this person is doing?
-Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler, Crucial Conversations

The first step, the step you need to take before doing anything else, is to clear your mind of everything other than facts. This email was sent. Those words were spoken. I saw this thing. No feelings, no theories, no assumptions – just the objectively verifiable, indisputable, concrete facts of the situation.

Next, imagine the other party to be reasonable, decent, and kind. If you can assume positive motives, you suddenly have access to a much wider set of possible explanations. Tell yourself a different story. There are always circumstances you know nothing about. Remind yourself that the other person has a different set of priorities, that you aren’t necessarily at the top of their list, and that they have their own thoughts, doubts, insecurities, and pressing problems. What’s essential to you might be completely outside their field of vision, or not urgent from their point of view – not because they’re a bad person, or bear you any ill will, but just because they’re preoccupied with something else.

Lastly, ask. Don’t accuse, don’t demand, don’t frame in terms of your assumptions – just ask. There’s no surer way to create a disaster than to frame a question as an attack when the other person has no idea what you’re talking about. Don’t ask about the meta-problem that’s inside your head (“Why are you avoiding me?”), ask about the actual issue (“Do you have any feedback on my performance?” “Have you had a chance to talk to X about my raise?”). What you’ll discover is that 99% of the time your assumptions were completely off-base, and that the truth is far simpler and more reasonable than you’d thought. It might not be the answer you want. This isn’t a magic method that freshens breath, whitens teeth, and always gets you your heart’s desire. What it will do is to get you out of your head, and the toxic stew of accusations we all concoct when left to our own devices.

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