Project Management

The Very Real Consequences of Evasive Answers

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Some time back I was in a meeting with a project manager who presented the status on his troubled project to the project sponsor and other executive stakeholders. This project was of high interest to the sponsor and stakeholders as they were depending on its successful completion to make some major changes in their respective organizations. The project sponsor asked the project manager a very straightforward question:

Why is the project slipping?

The project manager went into a long, meandering monologue. The sponsor interrupted and asked the question again. More meandering from the project manager. Seeing the sponsor and other stakeholders’ growing frustration, the project manager’s boss stepped in and said they needed to do more homework and would come back the next day better prepared. The next day, the project manager’s boss presented the status and answered questions--along with a new project manager.

Through my career I’ve seen (and been in) plenty of situations where an exec’s (who I will refer to as “the asker”) questions were met with evasive responses. It could be that the person being asked (“the askee”) didn’t want to admit not knowing something or be proven wrong. The askee would then, as we liked to say in the consulting world, “tap dance” to attempt any response that might satisfy the asker. More often than not, the asker would grow frustrated with the evasiveness. This led me to the following hypothesis:

If an asker asks a question, the asker expects a direct answer.
When an askee is evasive, the askee leaves it to the asker to make up his/her own answer.
The askee has not only damaged his/her credibility, but now has to change the asker’s perception of the answer.

While my focus is in executive interaction, the same principle applies to other relationships like spouses or business partners. When an askee is evasive, the asker makes up his/her own answer, and the askee now has to dig out of a hole to reestablish credibility and set the record straight.

Need to build your answering skills? Keep the following eight tips in mind:

  1. Listen first then answer – Take the time to listen to a question without interrupting the asker, then when the asker is finished, give a response. Resist the urge to interrupt to get your answer in.
  2. Do ensure clarity – If you truly don’t understand a question, then by all means ask for clarification. But don’t continually ask for clarity; it could look like you’re deflecting.
  3. Give straight answers – If you’re asked a direct yes/no question, give a yes/no response. If there are contextual factors that support the answer or conditions that may change the answer, then provide them--concisely. And please don’t say, “It depends” without qualification.
  4. Don’t reframe – Saying something like “The question you should be asking is . . .” immediately conveys that you think the asker isn’t intelligent enough to ask the right questions. Acknowledge the question, respond, and move on.
  5. Don’t deflect – Changing the topic to avoid answering a question may work if the asker can be distracted, but usually the asker can sniff out when someone is avoiding a question by changing the topic. Do it once and you’ll probably get some grace for innocently not understanding the question; do it two or more times and you’ll be viewed as an avoider.
  6. Don’t attack validity – Saying something like, “That’s not important,” or “You shouldn’t ask that,” tells the asker you believe his or her intelligence is inferior to yours. If the asker is taking the time to ask a question, then assume the question is important to him/her.
  7. Say “I don’t know” – If you don’t know the answer to a question then be quick to say “I don’t know, I need to get back to you.” Then record the question and be prepared for a “When will you know?” follow-up from the asker.
  8. Be quick to admit if you’re not prepared – Too many “I don’t knows” may mean you have to do more research. It’s best to avoid this by being clear on the topic and prepared to discuss it. One humiliating abrupt ending to a meeting with a “you need to do more homework” directive will motivate you to not let it happen again.

This bears repeating: the consequences of evasive answers not only means the asker makes up his/her own answer, it also harms the askee’s credibility. Give straight answers and control the narrative. 

Posted on: January 14, 2021 09:54 AM | Permalink

Comments (14)

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Raj Souda San Jose, Ca, USA
Thanks for the relevant and insightful article.

Eileen Remlinger Project Manager| Dovenmuehle Mortgage, Inc. Mundelein, Il, USA
Sage advice for all! Thank you!

Vincent Hand Volunteer| American Red Cross and Engineers without Borders Oxford, Oh, USA
Excellent. Now, how do we convince POLITICIANS to respond according to these principles?

Maria Silva Sumano Project Manager| IBM Mexico, Df, Mexico
Very good advice! Should work for other professions too!

MOUSSA EL HAJRAOUI Casablanca, Morocco
Excellent case / lesson learned
If the project is slipping, the PM should be the first to know it, have the raison why, and the solution for.
The project manager’s boss is also accountable for this situation.

Honesty first
This PM must get trained and certified PMP.
PM must always be armed with:
. Project overall up to date status and what is planned next
. Current PM data, informations, and reports,
. Experience, if any, and appropriate interpersonal skills.

Edgar Antonio Diaz Romero Project Engineerig| Ingredion Iztapalapa, Cmx, Mexico
Great article, and very good advices

Thank you

gottfried araeb Manager: PMO| Namport Walvis Bay, Erongo, Namibia
Great advice!

MARIA LUZ PASCUAL Sr. Project Specialist| PJM Interconnection Collegeville, Pa, USA
Very helpful and useful tool for communication. Thank you for sharing.

Alex Contijoch PM I| fcc construccion s.a. San Cugat Del Valles, Barcelona, Spain
Great article!. Being evasive is a common behavior when we are under pressure. The tips you suggest are a good advices on how to manage oneself in that situations.

Thanks for sharing this...

Obinna Iheukwumere Senior Planning Engineer and Interface Coordinator| Bouygues Travaux Publics (BYLOR JV) Bath, UK, United Kingdom
Very useful and straightforward tips for communicating more effectively. Thanks for sharing.

Sylvain Carrier Retired| Canadian Forces and Government of Canada Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
I like the points that you make Lonnie and those from Moussa but I believe that the "real life" situations sometimes (often?) require us to be vague. Why? To be careful not to blame a partner who person who has not performed. Because senior management took too long to decide on something (and we can't really say that). I'm sure many of you could come up with lots of examples. That's probably why politicians answer questions the way they do...

Stefano Galbusera Project Manager| Schneider Electric Robbiate, Lecco, Italy
Fruitful reading Lonnie, thanks for sharing. I do concur with the article in every single facet in case I was the asker or the askee. Conversely, if I was the asker I would consider the EI and, why not, the cultural awareness.

Sunday Mordi Elalan construction company Ltd Express Way, Ojo, Lagos, La, Nigeria
Well articulated. Thank you for sharing.

Stephen Pletschke PM III| vHive Tech Pretoria, South Africa
Good read Lonnie. Another difficult situation - when you get dragged into a meeting with an exec who has nothing to to do with your project and they try to change the game plan.

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