Smarter Working

Caught Off Guard

When you’re put on the spot, there are ways to finesse your response in real time.

The gig was going great from Tom’s perspective. Each week he presented his team’s data at the weekly meeting and received little feedback from his superiors. Then, one day, in the middle of the meeting, he was asked about the specific results from a smaller project—something he wasn’t prepared to address. He was caught off guard and ended up sputtering a reply that thinly veiled his ignorance.

There are all sorts of variations of being caught off guard: your boss unexpectedly calls on you during a presentation to discuss a topic you don’t fully grasp, or a client poses a question about an internal process that you don’t know about. Within seconds, you have to make a quick decision as to whether you own up and say you don’t know, or try to spin your way out of it.

You can narrow down surprise by asking questions to try to define what the person wants to know.

And while a one-off here or there won’t kill your career, being able to answer when you’re caught off guard is a crucial skill for successful people. In a series of studies on impressions of presenters, researchers found that “mildly favorable information dilutes the impact of highly favorable information”—meaning, your boss will form an overall impression of you based on how often you’re fumbling or able to execute with grace. Here’s how to dial down your sputter rate.

Stall and ask questions.

While panic may rise inside you when you don’t have all the data, one completely acceptable tactic is to take the “I’ll get back to you” route, so long as you aren’t always answering this way. The key to making this work is specifying when you can provide a response—and actually following up.

You can also narrow down the surprise by asking questions to try to define what the person wants to know. “Too often, we respond to the initial request,” says Gabrielle Bill, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. “Instead, you should try to dive deeper.” This works particularly well for people who like to think things through before answering—and for those who work with to-the-point bosses who want answers immediately.

Analyze your anxiety.

You know those calm, collected colleagues who seem to be able to answer any question thrown their way? What they lack is performance anxiety—or a common phenomenon known as imposter syndrome, when people feel their success is just a fluke. Researchers estimate about 70% of people suffer from imposter syndrome at one point or another. “Underneath it all may be a matter of confidence and anxiety,” says Kathy Robinson, who heads TurningPoint, a career-coaching firm in Boston.
The good news is, much of imposter syndrome and performance anxiety is self-imposed. If this is the case, one way to ease the caught-off-guard feeling is to focus on your positive qualities rather than the negative ones, and what might go right instead of what could go wrong.

Hone your agility.

The work world has never evolved as quickly as today, and the resulting changes are forcing professionals to become nimbler. You can improve your agility by applying lessons from the past to situations in which you don’t know what to do, and by not automatically resorting to the same old solution. If your old way of managing employees, for example, was a passive-aggressive style that didn’t work well, you could try to be more proactive with new direct reports. This type of agility training—learning and continually tweaking your methods—ultimately will help you react when you’re caught off guard. Another tactic that could help: take an acting or improv class, where you’ll learn to think fast on your feet.

Don’t fake it.

Unless you have the smooth-talking slickness of Frank Underwood (which ultimately couldn’t even save him), if you don’t know the answer, the worst thing you can do is make something up on the spot. This is completely different from giving a half-answer (“Here’s what I know and here’s what I need to get back to you on”). And while the words “I don’t know” can feel uncomfortable or embarrassing, they won’t get you into trouble the way a bald-faced lie will.

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take our learning agility quiz