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.
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.