It can be lonely at the top. Leadership comes with a lot of responsibilities and pressures. So when people question your vision, direction, implementation or especially your competence it can be tempting to head that off at the pass. Questions can seem like a lack of loyalty, a distraction, or a rebellion. It is a natural human reaction to feel defensive and to want to stop the questioning before it spread. It is tempting to use the power and authority of the leadership position to dismiss the questions and questioners out of hand.
Stuffing questions away, does not actually make them go away. It just leaves them to grow, behind the scenes. People don’t forget their questions, they wonder what the leader is hiding by not answering them, and they guess at answers, which often leads to rumors. Limiting the ability for people to freely ask questions, also limits trust and open communication. It builds an “us and them” dynamic, isolating the leader from the people they are supposed to be leading.
Effective leaders know that asking questions isn’t a sign of disloyalty, it is a sign of interest, curiosity, and engagement. It is an important part of the communication process. People care enough to wonder, so they have questions. Leaders who are open to questions take them not as a threat but as an opportunity. Answers to questions might help some be more productive, have higher buy-in to a vision, be more efficient in their tasks, generate ideas for improvement, and build trust and a sense of community.
Good leadership follows these three steps when they are faced with questions:
Acknowledging the questions people have assures them that a leader has heard them, and considers the question important enough to take seriously. This affirms that the person is valued, as well as the question. An effective leader follows up by making sure that they understand the question being asked, and the issue being addressed. Giving flip answers to deal with a question, or offering answers to the wrong questions, undermines respect for the leader and contributes to questions about competency and/or commitment to the communication process. Address the questions. Find the answers, and communicate them. It is okay for a leader to tell someone they need time to find an answer, do research, or fully answer a question, but leaving important questions unanswered because it is time consuming is never a good idea. A good leader not only takes the time to answer the questions asked, but considers whether there are underlying questions behind the actual question asked, and seeks to answer those before they are even asked.
Good leadership requires good communication skills. Insecure leaders quash questions from those they lead. Effective leaders view them as an important way to build communication, trust and respect.
Esther DeWitt M.S., CAMS, is an organizational psychology practitioner specializing in conflict, emotional management and leadership issues. She is a credentialed mediator, certified anger management specialist and the founder of Conflict Navigation in Oceanside, California.
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