Business as Usual: I’m Not an Expert, But I Play One on TV

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By: Helene Cavalli, guest blogger

We’ve all experienced a similar existential crisis: the dread fear of being unmasked for the imposters we really are.

It’s an uncomfortable and not uncommon phenomenon. From neurosurgeons to lawyers to board room executives to graduate students and everyone in between: We all have moments when we have doubts about our accomplishments, wondering how we achieved what we did without anyone noticing that we were faking it all along. Why hasn’t anyone pulled back the curtain and called us on it?

In business, it’s important to be perceived as an expert in your particular role, function and industry. But who among us knows everything?

Certainly not I.

I’m presented with questions everyday that I can’t answer without conducting some research or relying on a colleague for guidance.

But for some, asking for help feels like weakness and can create internal conflict. How does one balance the need to be an authority against the reality that no one is all knowing, while at the same time preserving the respect and confidence of colleagues?

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Beware. A threatened ego should never be left in charge.

When confronted with a question that is beyond your scope of knowledge it’s always a wiser choice to avoid faking an answer. But if the ego feels threatened and doesn’t have the courage to say, “I don’t know”, it gets ready for battle, blustering its way through a response, setting off warning bells in the listener: incoming bullshit.

“When you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s hard to know when you’re finished.” Tommy Smothers

What’s the danger in pretending to know what you’re talking about? You risk creating a perception of insincerity and incompetence, as well as losing credibility and trustworthiness. And worse, you could be providing simply wrong information. While you might believe you need to know everything to appear convincing and capable, the wisest people always recognize that they, in fact, know just a little. There is no disgrace in not having all the answers.

Appeal to your higher self.

In fact, not having the answer can be turned into a great opportunity. You now have an opening to ask a question, allowing someone else to share his or her expertise. People love to share their knowledge and it’s a nice way to begin building relationships with colleagues from whom you can learn.

It gets easier with practice.

None of us have all the answers so there’s no need for apologies. Consider following this simple four-step process the next time you don’t have the answer:

  • Say that you don’t know the answer.
  • Commit to doing a little research; follow up with a response.
  • Ask a question so that you can learn about the topic.
  • Stop speaking.

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Be genuine about who you are and what you know.

You’re in your job because you earned it. Don’t confuse competence with having all the answers. But do speak with confidence about what you know if you want to influence and gain trust. And true confidence comes from knowing your strengths and acknowledging your weaknesses. This allows you to truly understand the value you bring to the discussion.


Helene Cavalli is a marketing professional for a management consulting firm. She studied Liberal Arts and wanted to be a sociologist. Helene loves foreign films, living in Philadelphia and taking her dog to the park. Follow Helene on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn .

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