How Smart Leaders Respond to ‘I Don’t Know’

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under coaching culture management

Leader coaching a team member

Learn how to respond when your team member says ""I don't know"" and help them take ownership of their own work issues.

As a manager, your team may often come to you with problems. If you take this as your cue to offer opinions or make suggestions, you run the risk of setting a dysfunctional precedent, keeping you involved in everything.

A better alternative is to coach your team. Instead of simply instructing, you ask questions to help your team work through their problems and uncover options to move forward.

As you transition from instructor to coach, you will inevitably find yourself in this common situation:

So, what do you think?’ you ask a teammate, secretly hoping their next words will be the solution you have in mind.
I don’t know,’ they respond with a blank expression.

To a solution-oriented person, ‘I don’t know’ is an almost-irresistible invitation for ideas. However, if you’re the primary source of ideas and solutions, you haven’t really delegated the problem.

(Note: I’m assuming we’re talking about a work problem here, rather than asking for information or context).

How to Coach an ‘I Don’t Know’

If you want your team to become great managers in their own right, you have to keep your ideas to yourself and help them think for themselves.

Coach the person, not the problem.

Here are some alternative ways of reacting to ‘I don’t know’. They can help your team deal with the current problem, and maybe even the next one too.

‘Do I have permission to coach you?’

Ideally, you’ve already set up a coaching relationship, but if not, asking for permission will help you transition into ‘question mode’.

‘Take a few moments to think it through before you answer.’

Give your colleague permission to think. A silent pause can also provide more thinking time.

‘What specifically don’t you know?’

Help your colleague pin the problem down. A specific frame can help generate new ideas.

‘What have you tried so far?’

Help them run through what they’ve already done. If they haven’t tried anything at all, perhaps that’s the problem.

‘What are some ways you might find out?’

Don’t assume your colleague is helpless. Ask them where they can look for answers.

‘When were you in a similar situation in the past?’

We’ve all faced challenges before. Sometimes a reflection question will help us remember what worked last time.

‘Where exactly are you getting stuck?’

Ask your colleague to run through their thought process. The ability to think about thinking is a useful skill.

‘What do you know.’

Reversing the question can sometimes uncover an insight, by encouraging a different point of view.

‘There are many ways to skin a cat. What are some of the possibilities?’

Asking for a single answer may put additional pressure on the response. Assuming there are multiple possible solutions eases the pressure and starts the ball rolling.

‘What’s your opinion on how to handle this?’

The word ‘opinion’ is another way of making it safer to speak.

‘What do you think wouldn’t work?’

Sometimes people discard good ideas prematurely. Investigate what’s in the ‘ideas bin’ of schemes that have been discounted.

‘If you prepare some detailed notes, how about we spend 15 minutes going through it tomorrow?’

This combines two techniques. Firstly, it asks your colleague to write out structured notes to help them connect the dots. Secondly, it gives them extra time to either find an answer or for the problem to go away.

‘Assuming you find an answer, what would you do afterwards?’

Problems aren’t always blockers and the next step will be the same regardless of the solution — which can also buy your colleague time.

‘Would you like to brainstorm?’

Set the stage for creative ideas, good and bad, and keep asking for their answers. Rather than voicing too many (or any) ideas, keep asking ‘What else?’

‘Just a hunch, but it seems like something else is going on here.’

Often, the problem they bring isn’t their real problem. Using labels like ‘it seems’ can help them go deeper and uncover the root of the issue.

‘Let’s not accept defeat yet. Tell me more about this.’

We’ve all been guilty of giving up too soon. Keep them motivated and moving forward.

‘What are you trying to achieve?’

To me, this is the ultimate coaching question. Helping people reconnect with what’s important to them never fails to improve clarity.

What If Your Team Still Doesn’t Know?

If you fail in your attempts to encourage the team to think out loud — or if you simply run out of time — bring up the situation in your next one-on-one. Just like sports coaches, team coaches seek opportunities for ‘play-by-play’ diagnoses, to get to the root cause and find ways to improve next time.

It could take a few months to fully empower your team to work through their own problems, so don’t expect ‘I don’t know’ to go away quickly. In fact, the complete absence of ‘I don’t know’ might even be a signal that the team isn’t being challenged. Think of ‘I don’t know’ as your call to coaching.

And if you have someone on the team who’s truly unable to solve their own problems, don’t delegate problems to them. Find someone else to whom you can.

Continue reading about coaching employees: 

Originally published Jun 17, 2020, last updated Apr 8, 2024

Learn a new skill every week

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter and learn new skills and mental frameworks that make startup life easier.

Unsubscribe any time.

Popular articles

How to Drive a Culture of Ownership

Do you wish your team took more ownership? Here’s how to trust them to get the job done without you...

How to Ask Your Team The Right Questions

To improve your ability to ask great questions, it helps to understand the types of questions you can ask...

A Guide to Running Exceptional One-on-Ones

How effective are your one-on-ones? Here's a practical guide for managers and their direct reports...

Join my newsletter

©2023 Founder Coaching Limited. All Rights Reserved.
FOUNDER COACH® is a registered trademark of Founder Coaching Limited.