3 words that will kill your career

In today’s working world, people are asked to do a lot, to fulfill roles which may not come naturally to them. Part of this stems from companies becoming “leaner” with their staff. Everyone has their primary role but then everyone also has to pitch in a little in other areas to make sure businesses continue to run smoothly.

I remember in business school studying Southwest Airlines and how they have such high on-time rates. It came down to two things. First, they stayed away from the worst airports, so no O’Hare in Chicago and no JFK in New York, for example.

Second, everyone, including the pilots, pitched in to clean planes to reduce turnaround time. Seems smart if you ask me. And then everyone gets paid when bonus time rolls around.

With this trend of everyone doing more with less, you’ll inevitably be asked something you don’t know. If you want to frustrate the hell out of your boss, just say, “I don’t know.” Do that a couple of times and your career trajectory will be flatter than the Nebraska plains.

Not knowing something is ok, and owning up to it is fine too. But this response sucks, and I’ll tell you why.

If your manager asks you a question or to help do something, one of a handful of things is probably happening:

  1. Your boss doesn’t know either but doesn’t have time to figure it out
  2. Your boss is asking you to perform the task because it will help your development i.e. your ability to get more money in the future
  3. You should know the answer already as part of the work you’re doing 
  4. I want to see how you handle requests outside the box you normally work in
  5. The question is more important than whatever you’re working on
  6. You don’t actually have anything else to do

Number 6 is my favorite but in any of these cases following up “I don’t know” with “but I have an idea on who to call to get the answer” sounds much better, because in reality there’s two types of “I don’t know” responses.

There’s one type of “I don’t know” where you genuinely don’t know and thought that was the end of the discussion (it never is) – you get one mulligan from me on this one. Then there’s another type which implies I don’t know because it’s not my job… 

If you’re the first type you’ll probably get a few more chances for redemption from most people but if you’re the second type then you should probably start trying to figure out how quickly you can transition to working for yourself because it’s going to be a tough road for you anywhere else.