14 Jun 2018

Dear Liz,

Last week my boss “Nathan” asked me to gather some information about our largest customers.  I created a custom report and did some analysis. I was able to find about eighty percent of the information Nathan asked for.

We sat down and went through my report. At the end of our discussion Nathan said, “Where is the rest of the information?” I said, “I couldn’t find it.” He just looked at me.

He said, “We need to get that data. What else can you try, that you haven’t tried already?”

I was frustrated because it seemed like Nathan overlooked my hard work. I said, “I don’t know. You’re my boss. Why don’t you tell me?”

Nathan said, “Your assignment is to get the rest of the information I asked for. Let me know if you get stuck. I need it by Monday.”

He wasn’t pleased. I guess I messed up but I’m not sure how. I tried my best and I collected four-fifths of the data my boss needed. I asked two of my coworkers for help but they didn’t know anything, either.

What should I do?

Thanks Liz,


Dear Chris,

By now you’ve probably figured out that, “I don’t know.  You’re my boss. Why don’t you tell me?” is never your best choice of words.

I’m sure you were frustrated sitting in that meeting with Nathan, because you had worked hard to get him what he asked for.

However, Nathan is not being unreasonable. If you run into a roadblock at work, you are responsible for asking questions, reading any available documentation and generally digging in to figure out how to surmount the roadblock.

You gave up too easily when you told Nathan, “I couldn’t find it.”

“I couldn’t find it” is what kids say when a parent asks them, “Where’s your backpack?” The next question the parent invariably asks is, “Where did you look?” or “Where’s the last place you had it?”

The parent is guiding the kid to find a solution. The kid would rather give up and go to school without their backpack, or let the parent find the backpack or buy a cool new Iron Man backpack and forget the old one! The parent is trying to teach the kid how to solve problems.

That’s what Nathan is doing with you right now. He’s coaching you in problem-solving.

It can be frustrating when you’re not sure how to proceed to solve a problem at work. It’s always okay to say, “Here’s what I’ve tried so far. I’m not sure what to do next.” I would go back to each of your coworkers and explain again what you want. People are busy and they don’t always focus on what we ask them.

If it’s a data issue, talk to your IT team also. Talk to anybody you know who’s knowledgeable about the department. Become an internal sleuth. That’s good for you — you’ll meet more of your coworkers and learn more about how information flows throughout your organization as you pursue your goal.

Be polite and persistent. Every time you stretch yourself to learn something new at work, you grow. Solving problems is the best way to stretch yourself!

The only way to build your muscles is to step out of your comfort zone.

Eighty percent is a B grade in school and that’s considered a good grade. In the business world it’s different. Nathan needs the full picture of what’s happening with your largest customers. In the business world eighty percent is not a passing grade.

Here’s what to say instead of, “I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me?”

Nathan: Chris, where is the rest of the information I asked for?

You: I’m still working on that. I talked to Mindy and Jason and they didn’t know where to find it. Can you suggest anybody else I should ask, or other avenues for me to pursue?

Here are five more things you don’t want to say to your boss — and suggestions on what to say instead.

Don’t say: “I get all the boring assignments.”

Instead, say: “I’d like to take on more responsibility and learn something new. How can I help you and the department more? Do you have any projects you haven’t had time to begin? I’d be interested in taking something like that on.”

Don’t say: “No one trained me on that.”

Instead, say: “I haven’t learned that process yet but I’d like to learn. How do you suggest I get trained in it?”

Don’t say: “Don’t ask me — I know nothing about that. You have to ask somebody else.”

Instead, say: “I’m sorry, I haven’t been involved in that project. Do you want me to look into it?”

Don’t say: “I need a pay raise. I’m underpaid.”

Instead, say: “Can we set up a time to talk about my goals, my path here and my compensation? I’d like to sync up with you.”

Don’t say: “I’m the only person in the department who does any work. Everybody else is a slacker.”

Instead, say: “When you have time, I want to get your thoughts on my role and its scope. I want to make sure you know what’s working right now and what isn’t working as well — so we can fix it.”

The more you think about and practice interpersonal communication at work and everywhere else, the more confident you will be and the more capable a communicator you will be, too.

All the best to you and Nathan!



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This content was originally published by Forbes Magazine. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By Forbes Magazine

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