This Message Isn’t About Reopening. (It’s about asking good questions.)

brainstorming meeting in an office where people are following COVID precautions

My coaching client, a mid-level manager in a good-sized nonprofit, told me about a meeting for all managers at her level. The boss–we’ll call him Ward–wanted to talk about “how to come back together into the office.”

At least, that’s what he said he wanted to talk about. When the managers gathered on Zoom, they found out that Ward’s agenda was to discuss the arrangement of the physical space.

“But that’s just a tiny piece of it!” June said to me. “In fact, that’s the easy part! We were all scratching our heads, thinking, Yes, but when are we going to discuss the real issues?” 

In the end, the middle managers called their own Zoom, without Ward, to talk about what was really on their minds:

  • What are we going to do about the people who are scared to come back?
  • What if I am one of the people who is scared to come back?
  • What do we do about the people who think this whole pandemic thing is overblown and won’t want to comply with rules about distance and masks?
  • What steps can we take to keep everyone as safe as possible? And to help people feel as safe as possible? 

June and her colleagues had it exactly right. They needed to take an intentional role in discussing these big questions.  

We’ve had 13 months of “How do we cope with this crisis, and then this crisis, and then this crisis?” Now it is high time to step back to ask big questions. 

Coming back to the office in person is just one of many decisions that could be reduced to a few easy answers: Should we put plexiglass between every cubicle, yes or no? But these easy decisions should not be the only ones we discuss.

June and her colleagues were engaged in true inquiry, asking questions about people rather than things. 

The questions we need to ask today are nuanced. The answers will be complicated, and they won’t come quickly or easily. But if we’re patient with the process, we’ll come up with results that will last. That simply cannot happen if we stick to “transactional” questions like how far apart the desks should be.

We also need to involve as many people as possible in the decisions. June knew she needed to talk with her own direct reports, and that she needed to do it sooner rather than later. But she hesitated. The middle managers hadn’t made any decisions yet; they planned at least two more meetings before presenting their suggestions to Ward . “People are going to have questions, and I’m not going to have answers,” she said.

“And then what might happen?” I asked. 

June’s smart. It only took her a minute. “I guess that would be OK, wouldn’t it?”

Yes, that would be OK. You don’t have to have all the answers.

In fact, if you ask questions that really matter, by definition you will not have all the answers. Instead, you will be involving your team in co-creating good, inclusive answers. 

On a transactional level, that’s just good business sense. If you want to know how to lay out the floor plan, ask the people who actually work on the floor.

On a deeper and more substantive level, it’s still good business sense. I always say, “People support what they help to create.” Involving the whole team in asking tough questions not only yields better, fuller answers but also builds trust. And trust is key to the success of any major change initiative.

I know Ward only through June, but my experience makes me wonder whether he asked easy, transactional questions because he wasn’t comfortable saying “I don’t know” when confronting the big, people-based, complex questions.

Effective, trusted leaders are comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” If you already know the answer, why are you asking your team? (You know you hate when your boss does that to you.) 

Acknowledging that you don’t have answers–and saying so, in so many words–normalizes uncertainty. Which is an indispensable leadership skill, given that uncertainty is where we live now and where we will continue to live for the foreseeable future. 

No one has simple, straightforward  answers to the complex questions we all face. 

When your team understands that they are all in this together and that no one, not even the boss, has all the answers, then they can work together to find answers to difficult questions. They will trust the solutions that they co-create–even if, as individuals, they don’t agree with every detail. Because they trust the solutions, they will work together to implement them. 

Asking the right questions of as many people as possible is a way of creating trust on purpose. When you do that, you empower people to find the answers that do the most good for the organization, its people, and its customers.

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