Tell them you don’t know

The situation in which we live has led us to revise everything we know about leadership. We have talked extensively about remote leadership and leadership in times of crisis. As consultants, we receive inquiries every day, with varying degrees of anxiety and concern, about what the future will be like, about that famous “new normal”, about how to keep the team motivated and even about the best way to hide the fear and uncertainty that business owners, CEOs and managers feel. 

And that is not surprising. Although you can lead from various positions within a company, leadership is expected from those in positions of authority. Those who occupy these positions usually work under pressure, imagine the pressure they feel these days. We usually expect from them a lot of concrete, clear, quick solutions to problems. Whoever is in a position of authority is expected to know what to do. Know what, know how, know when. In terms of Heifetz’s adaptive leadership, those in positions of authority are under pressure to treat adaptive challenges as if they were technical. 

And the crisis exacerbates this. There are good reasons for that. We live in a situation of great uncertainty. Uncertainty scares us. We are not trained to use fear as a guide. We prefer a childish attitude and wait for “big one” to come and solve it for us. We do not like uncertainty, so we ask the authority figure to tell us what is going to happen… or rather ask how he or she is going to solve it, so that we can feel safe again. The other reason is that there are people who studied solutions to problems that were adaptive at some other time in history.An engineer, for example, can solve problems that a few centuries ago would have been faced with prayer. These are technical problems, with a known solution. The authority is expected to know these solutions… and the solutions to new, unknown, adaptive challenges. Impossible, of course. But… if the person in charge does not know, what do we do with the anguish?

What should I do? How do I take care of my people? What is going to happen?How am I going to reorganize my team? These are some questions that we usually hear. What do I tell my people? I was asked by one of the partners of an engineering company about 15 days ago. The conversation was long, mainly because my answer was “I don’t know” followed by an invitation to think together. Interestingly, after talking for a while, we discovered a few things: First, acknowledging and validating fear helps a lot. Fear is a guide if we accept it instead of trying to make it go away. Second, expressing my inability to give him an answer led to him recognizing himself as part of the problem. Not knowing how to deal with the situation is going to require a change on your part. And then… why not doing the same with your team? Share with them that you are scared too. But, “doesn’t that take me out of my place of authority?” “I lose credibility,” he objected. Did I as a consultant give you an answer?  – I don’t have it. It is the first pandemic of this magnitude that I have experienced. And I told you I didn’t know. And that led you to think, to get involved. 

He did the same with his team. He shared that he is scared. He told them that he does not know what is coming or what to do. Let’s think together. Let’s share what happens to us. Let’s try. Let’s fail and try again. 

Two weeks went by.

They don’t know what the “new normal” will be like. What is going to happen to the company? How will my job be? What do we have to do? But they know this: team morale is high, they trust each other not because the other knows, but because the other also shares their fear, they think together. And that is hope.