Tanya Warnakulasuriya presents suggestions to managers and workers on how to ‘get things done’

Picture this scenario… As the manager of your team, you ask an employee to carry out some work that you need completed by a certain date. A slight look of concern comes over his face but he agrees to carry out what you’ve asked him to undertake. Over the next few days, you occasionally bump into him and inquire about the progress of the project. He smiles weakly and mutters that it’s ‘going fine.’

Sooner rather than later, submission day arrives and he nervously walks into your office to present his work. As you review the project, you become increasingly frustrated and angry. The work isn’t what you asked for and it’s clear from what’s been produced that this person didn’t know how to meet your expectations.

You may wonder why he didn’t simply say so in the first place?

The phrase ‘I don’t know’ is taboo in many countries in Asia. Certainly in Sri Lanka, an admission of ignorance about a particular topic or subject matter at work is almost impossible to admit. This is because many workers think that to make such an admission is to reveal that they’re weak or inept at their job.

For many, the workplace today is a fast-paced and rapidly changing environment in which information is updated continually and complex processes change all the time. It would be impossible to stay abreast of everything all the time and an employee should not be expected to do so.

Workplaces that expect their staff to know everything all the time are destined to breed inefficiency. Workers will be too fearful to admit that they do not know everything and waste time collecting information from the wrong sources. They may even fabricate information to cover their tracks and the tasks at hand. They could also delay providing the information while attempting to buy themselves more time.

Schools and universities feed our youth the false notion that if they achieve the required qualifications, they’ll be very capable of gaining the jobs they desire in their specialised fields. The requirements for most positions in today’s business world prescribe that people develop an attitude of continuous learning at work to maintain an edge in their areas of speciality.

It is only when they step into the world of work as new entrants do they discover that many of the theories and principles they’ve spent years striving to learn are useless or irrelevant in the practical sense. Each workplace will have its own processes and methodologies, and so a whole new learning process will begin to unfold.

Many will also find that when they move to their next job in the same industry in a different company, the way of doing things will change once again. But now they are ‘experienced’ employees so their employers will assume that they have a basic working knowledge of the subject or task with which they’re confronted.

This is where many struggle. And instead of speaking up and saying ‘I don’t know how to do this, we did it differently in my previous place of work’ or ‘I don’t know how to compile a project plan, a budget or an analysis report, may I have some guidance?’ most workers simply return to their workstations in despair and try to find someone (usually not the right person, mind you!) to help them.

We need to change this culture in our corporate world to one where it is perfectly all right to say ‘I don’t know.’

By fostering a learning culture in which managers are committed to developing their staff and are open to guiding team members to complete the work they need, we can develop a strong learning environment in which not knowing is an opportunity to learn something new.

Good managers are likely to ask questions rather than circulate directives when they delegate work. They would ask if the person has carried out similar work in the past. They would ask the worker to ‘walk him through’ the approach she intends to take and have an open discussion about the steps that are necessary.

Such managers would also require the team member to repeat in her own words what she’s been asked to do to ensure that the brief has been fully understood, much like a waiter repeating a food order to diners in a restaurant.

These managers would always encourage workers to speak up if they’re struggling or unclear about what is required of them.

Of course, the worker who says ‘I don’t know’ without any eagerness to want to know is an entirely different matter as he or she does not seem to want to learn the ropes. The same goes for workers who ‘never seem to know’ and continually repeat the same mistakes. For them, the task may be beyond their capabilities.

But the worker who has the confidence to admit that he or she does not have the information you require but will proactively take steps to find a way to obtain it is one who will add value to your organisation.