Helen Tupper: Turn lack of knowledge to your advantage

Bluffing your way through knowledge gaps will only hinder you, so be confident and ask for help if you want your career to flourish.

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We’re lucky in our profession that we are provided with a constant opportunity to learn, develop and increase our knowledge. While the basics of marketing remain, how we execute against them changes constantly due to the dynamics of our markets, the expectations of our customers and the impact of technology.

We’re expected to know about everything from the impact of GDPR to the role of chatbots in the customer experience and the efficiency of programmatic advertising, to name but a few areas of focus right now. It’s rewarding work but it’s hard work and, realistically, we’re not all experts in everything all of the time.

However, people often struggle to admit their knowledge gaps, preferring instead to bluff their way through and hope they won’t get found out. For some, this bravado is a sign of misplaced confidence and an aversion to seeking help leads to the practice of ‘winging it’, which may delay crucial learning in the organisation.

Conversely, these knowledge gaps can also give rise to ‘impostor syndrome’, with people fearing they’ll get found out if they ask the questions they need to, in order to understand more. Research conducted by Amazing If found that two-thirds of people who suffer from a fear of being found out at work feel their lack of confidence has had a negative impact on their career.

READ MORE: Thomas Barta – Don’t let technology become a confidence-drainer

I have certainly experienced this knowledge challenge myself. Over the last eight years, I’ve moved from the oil and gas industry to Virgin and then more recently to the technology industry with Microsoft. In each role, I’ve headed up a team who have known far more about the industry and the customer we were serving than me. On each occasion, impostor syndrome raised its head and I had to very consciously quash it down.

Winging it wasn’t the answer either, or I’d be at risk of making poor decisions and lacking credibility with my stakeholders. On each occasion, the more powerful answer was to admit I didn’t know the answer and to ask for help.

The most important thing to realise is that bluffing holds you back and asking for help will move you forward.

Through my coaching, I know that many people struggle to do this as they carry a number of assumptions around with them about what will happen if they do ask for help. I’ve heard things like “I’ll lose the respect of my manager” or “I won’t get promoted” and even “I’ll lose my job”. Most of these assumptions are unproven and untested, and put up a wall to our development.

Admitting you don’t know the answer, though, can be transformative to your development. Barack Obama outlined this powerfully during a 2009 speech to students, when he said: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new.”

I’ve got to a point in my career when I’m now confident in saying what I don’t know and regularly asking for help. Initially, it did feel uncomfortable but now it’s second nature, and as a result I get support quicker to solve challenges and my learning is accelerated. I have also built stronger relationships with my stakeholders through the process. Combining my work and coaching experience, I believe there are three specific things you can do to move from pretending to know it all to telling people you’re in ‘learn it all’ mode:

Be confident in your strengths

It’s a lot easier to admit what you don’t know when you can be confident in saying what you do know. For example, when I have changed roles to an industry I know little about, I can inspire confidence by telling people that I know how to build teams, brands and products. I can call on examples to illustrate this, which is confidence building for me and credibility building with others.

A suggested action for you is to write down the three biggest and most specific examples you have of where you have had a positive impact in your career. Your strengths will underpin these examples. Capture these stories and these strengths and use them as part of your personal narrative.

Tune into your triggers

There will be certain situations where you feel more vulnerable and exposed. It might be with your direct reports, your manager or a more senior person in the business. These will be the most transformative situations in which to challenge your mindset and assumptions.

Start small by thinking of a go-to phrase you can use in these situations that would mean you were exposing what you don’t know, rather than pretending about what you do. Statements like “I don’t know the answer to that now, but I’ll come back to you tomorrow” come across as more confident than a bluff that people can see through. Other phrases you could fall back on include “I don’t know enough about that yet” or “I’m still learning this, what is your view?”. These are constructive and positive ways of verbally stepping into your unknown space and having a go-to phrase can reduce the fear factor.

Buddy up

Find someone you can be really honest with about what you don’t know and feel you need to know to do your job effectively. This person can provide you with perspective about the knowledge gap and the effectiveness of your approach. This person can be a peer, a manager you trust, a mentor or a coach. Admitting how you feel to someone else can also increase your confidence in asking for help from other people too.

The most important thing to realise is that bluffing holds you back and asking for help will move you forward. Once you believe that, you will have the motivation to take action and the more comfortable you get asking for help, the more you can achieve for your organisation and in your career.

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