How to be Confident When Facing the Unknown

During a major change, a leader said to me, “Tell me what questions to ask so I look like I know what I am doing.” He said this with a smile but his eyes weren’t joking. He was dead serious.

Leaders are expected to create compelling visions of the future and build organizations to achieve them with little information and many of unknowns. They are expected to ‘run into the dark’ first and inspire others to follow. If they don’t do so confidently, people won’t follow.

Confidence is the most important trait leaders can draw upon when leading change to deliver results. They need to be confident that they are focused on the right things, speaking with the right people, and giving people what they need to succeed in new ways.

Leaders can lose confidence when faced with challenges that they don’t know how to solve. This usually happens when their operational experience doesn’t translate well to the circumstances and issues they have to manage during change. Since they have no reference point upon which to form a view or base a decision, they feel like they are in a burning building where going left looks as safe as going right.

Lack of confidence can manifest itself in poor behaviour such as anger, avoidance of decision making, poor listening, hiding, miscommunication and bullying. Their behaviour negatively shapes the culture and levels of engagement it motivates. One of the fastest ways to lose followers is to look like you have lost control.

So how do you avoid these pitfalls when facing the unknown? Here are four questions that will help you confidently work through any challenge:

  1. Why is it important? This question helps you differentiate between important and urgent situations. Things can seem important based on how they are delivered, which can trigger panic and desperate behaviour. It also focuses your efforts on where they will produce the best results.
  2. What do I need to know? Identifying what you need to know is the first step to creating a plan of action. It helps you determine what you already know that can lead to a solution and what you need to source. It also demonstrates to stakeholders that ‘something is being done’ about the situation. Tasking people to gather information and data is a solid next step.
  3. What experiences can I learn from? Similar circumstances have most likely occurred in your organization in the past. This question often leads to hypotheses to test or options to consider. Similar experiences help identify risks associated with different courses of action, adding a cost benefit assessment to your plan.
  4. What works and doesn’t work? In any organization, culture and current business realities influence what leaders and their teams will support or reject. For example, a very hierarchical organization will most likely reject a course of action that requires employee empowerment and decision making. Looking at options through these filters help identify the best course of action based on your culture.

Managing unknowns is a given for any leader. Doing so with confidence equips you with a flashlight as you move through the dark. It builds confidence in your abilities to lead the organization to its compelling future.

[fancy_box]Phil Buckley is Managing Director of Change with Confidence. Phil recently presented Building Your Change Capability on our e-Roundtable series.[/fancy_box]

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