Last month, we posted a blog about Cultivating Resilience in Leaders. One of the core attributes of resilient leadership is the ability to lean-in to challenging or stressful situations by asking open-ended questions before moving to action. The counter-intuitive nature of bringing a curious approach and holding off on acting, becomes more difficult the bigger and more urgent the problem. Adopting an attitude of “I may not know everything there is to know about this challenge” and “where might I be wrong about this?” are questions that encourage leaders to think in new ways that have far reaching impacts on an organization’s culture.
An article titled, The Business Case for Curiosity, in this month’s Harvard Business Review, cited the high value of curiosity on organizations and the link of this leadership behavior to business success. We wrote about how adaptive leaders bring curiosity to complex challenges, and as such, are more likely to see early warning signs of big problems. Curious leaders are better able to see the causes of complex problems and may be described by others as being able to “see around the corner” or observe patterns before others see them. When a leader solves urgent issues through a quest for new possibilities, he/she expands the potential possibilities for solving them.
One of the many benefits of asking deeper questions as a deliberate practice is it expands the emotional intelligence of the leader and the people working with the leader. Asking questions, creates higher self-awareness in the moment, by allowing a leader to pause, recognize and work with challenging emotions that are triggered by stressful situations. Greater self-awareness leads to an ability to manage negative emotions, to use the space a question provides to breath, ground oneself and choose a different response than one that is prompted by stress or fight, flight or freeze instincts.
Not only can the leader better manage him or herself in the moment when a big problem arises, he or she can also better manage relationships and responses to others in the organization. As the HBR article discusses, there are big benefits to others when a leader asks questions, such as better decision-making, more innovative and positive changes or solutions, reduced group conflict, more open communication and stronger team performance. It appears that the ability to ask open-ended questions also builds up resiliency beyond the leader to others in the organization. One could extrapolate from this, that we can build better cultures that are resilient, flexible, adaptive and curious.
Then why don’t more leaders ask questions in times of extreme challenge or even every day? Leaders often fear that asking more questions, may open more possibilities that may take them down a path they cannot control or to disagreements between co-workers that would be difficult to address. Exploration creates extra work up front and involves challenging the status quo. It’s human nature to not want to rock the boat when things are going smoothly and especially when they’re not. We naturally want to return to a state of stasis. And after all, isn’t it a leader’s role to have the answers and to solve problems? Leaders reach the top because they have deep experience and knowledge, and strong performance records that go with the job.
Solving business problems in a complex world through asking questions seems counter-intuitive to efficiency as well. Most big and hairy problems to be solved by leaders come with an ample sense of urgency and time pressure. The pressure to move fast, intentionally and decisively is a traditional hallmark of leadership and leadership performance. However, the familiar phrase “we should go slow to go fast,” is very true, and questions by their very nature, prompt us to go slow so we can process information, brainstorm alternative solutions, and reflect about what we know and don’t know about a given situation.
Ellen is a new CEO in a non-profit organization, having replaced an experienced and long-tenured CEO before her. In the first six months on the new job, Ellen has had plenty of challenges to solve both internally and externally as the environment in which the organization offers services to the community is changing rapidly. With a high action and thinking orientation, Ellen likes to solve problems swiftly and effectively, which she’s been known for. Some of the problems she’s facing as CEO are new to her and she feels a lot of pressure to gain credibility as a new executive. We’ve been talking about the balance she must strike, when some of the big problems the business is facing have a sense of urgency attached to them, between solving them quickly and searching for new solutions in order to solve them with more sustainable solutions.
The way Ellen must engage in problem solving now must move beyond her past experiences. For example, she must move beyond her former go-to people in the organization, by asking new questions of a wider range of employees that will allow her to see systemically what might be going on. The ability to stand one’s ground in a solid set of questions, instead of moving forward as quickly as possible, is extremely difficult when a leader isn’t on solid ground in the first place. As her coach, I’m looking for ways to support Ellen to create space between the problems and the solutions she seeks.
A series of questions will not only create that space for her, but they allow her to come to better decisions that will stick and endure. Her ability to model inquisitiveness that engages more leaders and employees sets an expectation that learning and solving problems in new ways are valued approaches at the company. Although this cultural shift will take time to land and feel real to employees, it will be worth the extra time that questions take to demonstrate this value in action as a culture changing imperative.
The positive impact on culture through these habitual leadership behaviors, such as curiosity, is more far reaching than most of us would imagine. If the very definition of culture as a compilation of behaviors by the people that work in organizations, then this leadership behavior of asking questions with genuine curiosity, is well worth cultivating within the culture.
In Ellen’s case, she will not only shift how she leads, but she will shift how others lead alongside her. The positive impact to employee engagement by experiencing the generation of possibilities in action, builds trust that allows employees to ask questions themselves. This is where innovation and engagement come together in the mundane every day challenges and opportunities of a leader. The questions that ask “why, what if, what might be and what don’t we know,” go a very long way to creating a culture of empowerment, resilience, innovation and fun.
Many of us report higher levels of stress in the workplace these days, whether due to global challenges, climate change, political turmoil, the constant onslaught of information through social media, email or text, running between work and family responsibilities or the pressure to lead with greater flexibility to reach the bottom line. Many of us look to external fixes to alleviate stress, such as taking on bigger workloads, doing more with less, pushing our employees to work longer hours or perhaps even looking for a new job if conditions become untenable. In relation to complex challenges at work, we might cultivate resilience by looking for and engaging in adaptive solutions that we’ve not considered previously. The solutions to stressful situations or big challenges do not always require external options, however, they may in fact, require us to shift internally to resolve them.
Resilient leaders embody a few consistent traits that come from shifting their internal mindsets and emotional states. A shift in mindset, for example, may require a re-framing of the stressful conditions, moving from a perception of overwhelming odds, to perceiving an opportunity to try something new or to learn from the situation. The ability to make this internal shift, to re-frame the story we choose to tell ourselves about what’s happening, can alleviate the impact of highly stressful conditions. The stories we tell ourselves are often based on our past experiences. In fact, as soon as we perceive similar circumstances taking place with a new challenge, we are more able to travel down the path to despair, fear, anxiety or anger. Our internal perceptions about what’s happening can be powerful enough to hijack our emotional state.
Re-framing the challenge isn’t about being an unrealistic optimist either. A leader may ask for example, “how can I use or work with this challenge or set of challenges to ensure a better or different result now and in the future?” The right amount of risk assessment or negativity, balanced with the potential to imagine positive outcomes, creates a steady state of mind from which to problem solve, think, reflect or learn about the current challenge.
Resilient leaders lean-in to the challenge or stressful situation by asking more questions before moving to action. These are not the type of questions that we already know the answer to or statements of fact disguised as a question. Open-ended questions require us to suspend our judgments or assumptions with the motivation to learn more before solving or acting too early. The more complex and difficult the problem to be solved, the higher the stress experienced, the more a leader must remain in the questions to find a new way forward. In most business cases, the choice to remain curious before solving a problem can feel counter-intuitive to the urgency one experiences to deal with the dilemma. However, adopting an attitude of “I may not know everything there is to know about this challenge or where might I be wrong about this?” are questions that encourage leaders to think differently or in new ways.
Adaptive leaders that bring curiosity to complex challenges are also more likely to see early warning signs of big problems. They are more able to engage differently, bring in perspectives from others, explore more deeply and try new strategies before situations become even more challenging to the business. These curious leaders are better able to see the causes of complex problems and may be described by others as being able to “see around the corner” or observe patterns before others see them.
Another important internal factor to is the ability to maintain emotional balance and fortitude, while dealing with what may appear on the outside as insurmountable issues. Resilient leaders are more able to work with their emotions (both positive and negative emotions), exhibiting a sense of being in control, even-tempered and calm in the eye of the storm. The ability to self-regulate when one is feeling angry, frustrated, afraid or anxious means others may see this leader naming what they’re feeling, or understanding when others are feeling these emotions, without reactivity or emotional displays such as panic, blaming, demanding or yelling. The ability to remain calm in the storm builds trust with others and allows people to focus during times of stress.
The emotional intelligence skills of self-awareness, self-management and social awareness, enable leaders to see themselves more clearly and to understand their default reactions to stress. Self-awareness leads to the ability to self-manage in the moment or regulate emotional reactions. Social awareness, especially during times of stress (or any other time) is about the ability to see how one’s behaviors are impacting others. Noticing for example, that a tendency to rush people with unrealistic expectations during stressful times, only creates more stress for others. Thus, being able to consciously adapt or change one’s reactions, to have a positive or productive impact on others, is important while weathering the storm. As emotions can be contagious to others, leaders that intentionally manage their reactions when under stress, create environments where people are better able to remain optimistic and motivated while working to solve challenges.
A friend recently shared a Wall Street Journal article, dated September 22, 2018, by Sam Walker, titled: The Two Contagious Behaviors of a Great Boss. The author referenced George Washington (1777) as a leader that modeled the way under the most difficult of circumstances by being relentless and exhibiting emotional control. The article went on to say that the ability to be resilient in any situation (especially stressful ones) requires the pursuit of high standards and tenacity or strength of mind, as well as fortitude or the ability to be reasonable or even-tempered.
George Washington was creative, demanded the best from his men and was reported to spend significant amounts of time bringing soldiers along with him or motivating them for battle. Resilient leaders, while being realistic and steady, bring an attitude to complex challenges of “we’re all in this together and we’ll figure out a way forward when we work together in new ways.”
Great leaders then and now, remain relentless in their pursuit of questions and re-framing challenges. They expand possibilities by working in new ways and take risks, and they remain connected to themselves and others along the way, while managing their emotions. These adaptive behaviors build and create resiliency in leaders.
I’m grateful that I made the radical move to jump out into the unknown as the lessons I had to learn about resilience, creative energy and vitality are similar to what many executives struggle with in our volatile, unpredictable, constantly changing and ambiguous (VUCA) work world.