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What should you do when you’re in a new role and you have your first “holy shit” day? You know it.  It sneaks up on you.  It’s that day where you realize that you have absolutely no idea what you should do.  No context, no background and no preparation.

It might happen in a team meeting where others are  looking at you expectantly, waiting for you to provide the answer.  Or with a colleague who launches into a long story about a situation that you need to resolve and you have no background or experience to do what he’s expecting. Or with a client who raises an old grievance in the hope that you will have a different answer.

What do you do in these moments?

While it can be tempting to seek the nearest exit, our usual tendency is to try to change the subject – quickly.  Or you might adopt the “let’s take it off line” approach.

When you’re not sure what to do, you need to know how to ask for help.

This is not something that we are very accustomed to doing in the workplace.  Why?  Well, it brings up all kinds of vulnerabilities for us.  We’ve likely spent a lot of time building a reputation for being competent and professional, so admitting that we need help feels uncomfortable.

Asking for help or admitting that we just don’t know the answer freaks us out.  It makes us feel afraid that after all these years of getting away with it, we’ve suddenly been found out.

The key is figuring out what to do when it strikes.

I believe that the best way to deal with those “holy shit” days is to be honest about what you know and what you don’t know.  Right up front; to your team or your colleague or your boss.  Why?  You can’t know everything.  It’s impossible.  And if you’re new in your role, then all the more reason why you won’t have all the history that your more tenured colleagues have.  How could you?

Rather than beat yourself up in these moments of vulnerability, consider these ways to re-frame the situation:

  1. Admit what you know and what you don’t know.  Be straight up about it.  Say “this is the first that I’ve heard of this issue; can you fill me in on the big picture background to bring me up to speed?”
  2. Ask lots of questions, preferably questions using “What” or “How”.  Asking with “why” can create either a defensive response or spark a long deep dive into details that may or may not be relevant.  If you do want lots of details, ask for them.
  3. Avoid the temptation to respond right away without thinking it through, unless of course it’s an emergency.  Instead, say that you need to think about what you’ve just heard.  Be sure to let folks know when they can expect your decision.
  4. Use the opportunity to build relationships and rapport with your new colleagues.  Reach out and ask for different points of view; people love to be asked for their input and asking for advice allows you to learn about others while working on a real issue.
  5. Make sure you do respond or deal with the issue promptly and that you get back to the source directly with a clear answer.  Doing what you say you will do is integrity in action.  Above all, you want to build a reputation for being trustworthy and reliable.