Wednesday, January 9, 2013

If you don’t have the answers, give them the questions

Lack of answers is a common problem that leaders face during times of change and uncertainty.  It’s not that they don’t want to provide answers.  They just don’t have them.  Like their people, they too are waiting for decisions to be made and solutions communicated.

However, this shouldn’t be a reason to stop communicating with your team.  In fact, this might be the time to communicate even more.

But if you don’t have answers, what is there to talk about?  Isn’t that what your people want?  Not necessarily.  It’s important to remember that during times of change the most important thing is for people to have some way of making sense of what is happening around them.  Anxiety comes when they don’t know what to expect or when to expect it.  Of course, providing answers is the best way to help people regain that sense of control.  But, if you don’t have answers, there are plenty of things you can discuss.

The next best thing after the answer is the questions being discussed to come up with the answer.  The key is to understand where people’s anxieties lie and respond to them.  By helping your team understand what issues are being explored, you help them gain some sense of order.  For example, suppose there is a major re-organization happening.  Your team’s primary concern is probably for their jobs. However, you might not know what jobs they will have in the future.  But you might know that the current discussions are around how to redeploy the current workforce and use managed attrition to meet future requirements.  Tell them that.  While your team doesn’t know exactly what they’ll be doing, they will at least know that their employment is probably secure.

If you don’t know the questions, you might be able to talk about the goals or criteria that are being used for making the decisions.  For example, in the case of the reorganization, perhaps the goal is to improve quality or customer experience as opposed to reducing payroll costs.  This would help your team understand that their job security might not be at risk.  Or, perhaps the goal is a reduction in payroll but the strategy is to figure out how to do that by expanding people’s roles rather than hiring new people.  That would help alleviate your people’s concerns as well.

Finally, in the absence of answers, questions, or criteria, you may be able to explain the process and timeline.  While it won’t provide specific content, at least it will give people an understanding of what to expect and when to expect it.

Of course, none of these can substitute for definitive answers.  However, by providing people with broader information and context you can help alleviate some of their anxiety.

As a leader, your job isn’t to have all of the answers.  Instead, try to understand the concerns that your people have and give them as much information as possible to help them make sense of their situation.

Brad Kolar is an Executive Consultant, speaker, and author.  He can be reached at