Why It’s Better to Be Smart and Wrong than Just Silent
This post was originally published in the Harvard Business Review.
I’m always amazed when I hear about smart, talented people going to their supervisors to ask for guidance using phrases like, “What do you think I should do?” Or, “How should I…?”
Let’s assume that you’ve gotten to where you are in life precisely because you’re smart, well-educated and have considerable experience in your field. Or, you’re young, ambitious and a good problem-solver. Either way, the question, “How should I ____?” should never leave your lips.
As a young professional or junior executive, it’s not crazy to think you won’t know what to do all of the time. Having limited or bad information is a reality many of us face on a regular basis. What we do in that situation, however, is up to us.
When you’re not sure what to do or how to proceed, don’t start with a blank slate and ask for help. Instead, start with what you do know, state your intended direction (and rationale behind it) and then get the buy-in or feedback of your manager. I’ve suggested this before, but here’s an example of how it could work:
Meet Jonathan, a young analyst at an accounting firm. Jonathan was working on building out financial projections for a start-up business and he was stumped. Jonathan didn’t have good information for making revenue growth or profit margin assumptions. It would be easy for Jonathan to get frustrated and just call up his boss and ask him what to do.
But if I’m Jonathan’s boss, I don’t want to do the legwork for him to figure out what he should do. I want him to come to me with an opinion. I want him to put a stake in the ground and give me an idea of what he thinks he should do. I want him to lay out his argument for or against going in a certain direction or using a certain set of assumptions, and then get my feedback or opinion on whether that’s the right course of action.
Let’s say Jonathan comes to me and says:
I want to talk to you about the financial projections for the Zeller project. There isn’t much information available from Zeller to help us build out revenue growth rates and profit margins. However, I’ve looked at some comparable companies, and I think a revenue growth rate of 4% a year is reasonable and a profit margin of 25% is a good ballpark number, and I think we should go with that. How does that sound to you?
If Jonathan is right and I agree with him, he’s just showed me how smart he is.
If I disagree with him, he’s still done himself a favor by demonstrating his thought process and making his opinion heard.
Here’s what I might say:
Actually, Jonathan, I think 4% is probably low. Based on the company’s product development efforts, I think you should assume a more aggressive growth rate of about 7% and hold margins constant at 22%.
How does Jonathan sound now? Does he sound dumb because I disagreed with him? He doesn’t. Jonathan’s analysis turned out to be wrong, but at least it had merit — it was well thought-out and based on research.
Even though I didn’t agree with Jonathan, at least I knew he put some thought into the problem. His suggestion also likely made it easier for me to respond and give advice. I didn’t have to run the initial numbers myself; I could simply integrate the additional information I had at my disposal to come up with a better answer. In effect, he helped me get part way towards the right answer.
Contrast this conversation with the one is which Jonathan comes to me and says:
I need some help with the Zeller financial projections. There’s limited information available and I don’t know what assumptions to use for revenue growth rates and profit margins.
What can I possibly think of Jonathan in this conversation? Is he smart? I have no idea. Is he lazy? Maybe. Is he a good problem solver? Your guess is as good as mine.
I’d take the guy who is wrong any day over the one who comes to me with nothing at all and asks me to do his work for him. So don’t keep quiet. Put yourself out there. Think through your issue, come up with some thoughts or ideas around what to do and then put a stake in the ground. Being wrong isn’t terrible. Being passive is.