Feel like you don’t know enough? Here’s what to do about it
When I qualified as an accountant rather than being proud of myself I was terrified. I was immediately promoted, given a big pay rise and offered the keys to a company car (even though I couldn’t drive at the time). I was also given much more responsibility and expected to up my game considerably – no more study leave, no more cutting me slack because I was a trainee. ‘Now you’re qualified you should….’ was a sentence opener that I came to dread because it usually led to me feeling very, very stupid and inexperienced.
That piece of paper suddenly cast me as an expert when really I felt like a dunce. It was the same whenever I changed jobs and acquired new responsibilities. What I didn’t know is that many newly promoted people feel the same – they’ve spent years learning how to be good at something but now they’re managers or partners the job is different and they need to develop a whole range of new skills and experiences. If that happens to you read on to find out why and what you can do about it.
Let’s start with why.
When we achieve the holy grail of qualification we’re no longer a junior or a trainee, our charge-out rate goes up and so do expectations – people who were senior to us even start treating us more like equals. But we don’t know any more than we did yesterday when we were still waiting for our results!
Because we’re suddenly expected to do more and know more we tend to become very aware of all the things that we just don’t know. We’ve moved into in a state psychologists call ‘conscious incompetence’ and started to focus on how little we understand rather than how much we know. And it feels horrible. We want unconscious competence, when you can do things naturally and well,l but that seems like a long way off.
How do you fix it?
Firstly, accept it; it happens to everyone. New roles are challenging and unsettling, that’s just a fact (see my helpsheet on coping with change for more info). Remember that it will get easier with time but you can help things along.
1. Think about what skills and experience you need to develop (maybe talk to your boss, someone responsible for talent management or even someone in the year ahead of you) and decide how you’re going to do it. It’s important here to think about what interests you – if you’re rubbish at tax and have zero interest in that area of expertise then don’t go there even if there are opportunities available; instead find something you enjoy and focus on that. Don’t forget that study after study shows that we are more successful and experience less stress when we enjoy what we do. Then ask your firm to provide you with a mentor and help pay for any additional training you need. Don’t wait for appraisal time; be proactive – do it as soon as you are ready. It shows you’re keen to get on.
2. It might help to find a coping mechanism. My nightmare scenario was being at a networking or other meeting and someone asking me a question I couldn’t answer. It happened all the time and I felt so embarrassed and useless. It was the same when I started coaching too. People can usually tell if you’re bluffing so don’t try and bluster your way out of it. In reality there’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying you don’t know something; it’s better to be honest yet constructive.
What to say.
Here are some of the lines I’ve used to get me over that awkward ‘I don’t know!’ moment:
‘It would be unprofessional of me to answer that without having much more information. I offer a free initial consultation, shall we find a time for you to come into the office and we can start to explore the issue?’
‘You know tax/VAT/whatever is really complicated and it’s not my area of expertise. Why don’t I get someone from our tax/VAT/whatever department to give you a call?’
‘That sounds tricky! Let me give you a call to arrange a meeting to talk about in more detail. Have you got a card?’
‘We can’t really talk here, why don’t we meet for a coffee and talk about that in more detail?’
‘You know I’m not sure about that. Let me check it out and give you a call in a day or two (or whatever timescale is appropriate).’
Just make sure that you do get back to them! Failing to follow up as promised is much, much worse than not being able to answer a technical question.
3. Get over yourself! We’re all nervous at one time or another and we seldom feel like we know enough about anything. But if you stretch yourself and get away from that comfort zone you’ll find that it gets easier to to deal with new situations and challenges. Why not take a deep breath and just do it?
I hope you find this useful. If you’d like support and advice tailored just for you, our confidential coaching sessions help professionals improve confidence, leadership skills and all-round performance. Book your free coaching session here.