Business man in doubt

Change   Leadership

It's okay not to have the answers

If you’re a leader, now is not the time for answers. Instead, make room for questions.

These days, everything is changing—and fast. In your case, the expectations people have of you as a leader are changing day to day. In fact, you have probably never had to change the way you think and act as quickly as you need to right now.

The pressure is mounting and you feel like you need to make very big decisions very quickly, while having no precedent or past experience to lean on. Just look at how the world leaders are responding to this crisis—every country seems to have a different approach.

You’ve seen many leaders “fail” already. Crises are very efficient at revealing truths and this crisis hasn’t been kind to some of your peers. You don’t want to fail. You want to meet the needs and expectations of your employees, customers and multiple other constituents.

How to let questions guide you through the crisis

You can do this, but first you need to do something that goes against everything you think you stand for as a leader. You need to stop thinking that you must have all the answers. Because you don’t. Instead, start listening to the questions that are circulating all around you. In a time of deep uncertainty and change, when there are no easy answers, we depend on each other’s questions to find groundbreaking solutions.

There are three distinct phases to this crisis, each requiring you to adapt your skills quickly. Most leaders are very good at handling one of these phases. But in times of crisis, you have to master them all, and you must switch between them multiple times —sometimes during a single day.

Phase 1: Communicate decisions

The key word in the first phase of a crisis is fast. Fast decisions and fast communication. In a crisis like the current coronavirus pandemic, a minute wasted can cost human lives, and therefore the most important leadership skill in this phase is to demonstrate that not only are you comfortable making decisions, but that you can also act on those decisions in a very short time. The way you demonstrate this leadership skill is by communicating quickly and regularly.

For example, as soon as we realized that the novel coronavirus had arrived in Denmark, the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen began holding daily press conferences telling the Danish people what to do and what not to do to help keep the virus under control and save as many lives as possible. She was calm, cool and skilled at convincing everybody that she was exactly the leader we needed to make the right decisions on our behalf.

In this first phase, everyone in Denmark had just one question on their minds: How do we slow down the spread of the virus and save lives? And they needed fast and firm decision-making on the part of the prime minister. She declared, unequivocally: We should all stay at home. Just look at what happened as a result: Danes applauded Frederiksen’s decisive action, broadly supported the freezing of the economy and unanimously embraced social distancing.

However, the danger of having success in this first phase is that you may forget that the need for fast and firm decisions is temporary and short lived. You may also forget that the first phase is actually the easiest. What happens next is where the rubber meets the road.

Phase 2: Make room for conversations

The key word in the second phase of a crisis is patience. Your employees must be patient with you while you consider the different options for how to proceed. And you must be patient with your employees while they wrestle with uncertainty and try to figure out how the crisis will affect them.

In this phase, things are not so clear-cut as in the first phase, when the problem was clear and easily articulated. For example, when reopening different parts of a society or company, leaders are overwhelmed with questions coming from all sides of society. Nobody can agree on what the most important question or what the most important problem is. So, it’s far from obvious for you as a leader where you should be focusing your attention and action.

The second phase may be the most difficult one. It calls for multiple conversations rather than a one-sided communication. It calls for you to make room for other people’s questions and reactions and it requires you to listen carefully to their aspirations and their concerns.

For example, Prime Minister Frederiksen did not do well in this second phase. In the first press conference she held after announcing “a cautious, gradual and controlled reopening of society”, she seemingly addressed a flurry of questions from concerned Danes. But instead of reacting to their legitimate concerns and questions and making room for conversation, all she did was defend the decisions she had made during the first phase.

While we had collectively moved on to the second phase of the crisis, where we all need to join forces in understanding and navigating our new normal, Frederiksen kept acting as if we were still in the first phase, in which we needed a strong leader to tell us what to do. As a result, people began to lose faith. They didn’t want to hear more about her decisions. They needed her to take their reactions to her decisions seriously.

It doesn’t make you an ineffective leader to receive criticism, have people ask direct questions of you, and even disagree with you. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether people agree with you. What matters is that they are joining the conversation about what is and what isn’t important moving forward. Only then will they feel a part of the new normal, share your vision and take responsibility for the success of that vision going forward.

Phase 3: Empower collaboration

The key word in the third phase of a crisis is trust. You must trust that people aspire to the new normal as much as you do, and you must empower them to find their own answers to their own questions. It’s no longer merely about you making an important decision about the most important problem, but about a lot of people making multiple decisions about multiple problems.

This phase might seem easier for you to navigate than the second phase. That’s probably because it’s obvious that you cannot be in control of everything. You cannot be everywhere. You have to depend on other people to share their knowledge, not only with you, but with each other. And experience has shown you that you must spend as much time connecting the right people with each other as you do making decisions.

Only time will tell how Prime Minister Frederiksen and other political and corporate leaders will handle the third phase of the coronavirus crisis, but one thing is certain: When nobody knows the answers, everybody must pay closer attention to the questions. And then, everybody must look for answers together.

Leaders who embrace not knowing and not having all the answers, leaders who adapt quickly to each new phase of the crisis, and leaders who focus on fostering conversations and collaborations are the ones who will succeed in this time of unprecedented crisis.

Like to share something with your employees? Why your leaders ignore your questions and how to make them listen might be a good fit.

Pia Lauritzen

Pia Lauritzen

Co-founder and Chief Methodologist at Qvest. Pia is the inventor of the Qvest method. She has a PhD in Philosophy and has spent the last 20 years researching and writing about the nature and impact of questions.

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