vendredi 15 décembre 2006

delivering tough answers

are almost at the end, and in a way we’re back
where we started. What’s your model for a leader? If it’s still
the fount of all wisdom, the worshiped guru, or the benev-
Sometimes, the question is more
important than the answer.
—Plato, Greek philosopher
olent know-it-all, answering the questions in this chapter
will be tough. If, on the other hand, you’ve developed a
model of the leader as a seeker of truth, a coacher of individuals, or
a teacher who learns, they’ll be simpler.
These answers aren’t fun to give. They deal with situations where
you have to say no, keep information secret, or tell people things
they don’t want to hear. These answers are the right answers to give
in difficult situations—they’re tough, and you’re the leader who has
to deliver them.
Answering when the answer is I don’t know
We established early on that becoming a leader does not ensure
that you become the fount of all wisdom. That being true, you’re
bound to face a question where you simply don’t know the answer.
Don’t panic.
First, think through the question again to determine if you’ve
been asked a fact question or an opinion question. If you’ve been
asked an opinion question, you have to answer. You’re the leader;
you’re expected to have opinions. If you’ve actually never thought
through this particular issue, you can say, “Good question. I’ve never
been asked that before. Let me think for a moment and come back
to this one.” Then your obligation is to return to the topic and
express your opinion.
If you’ve been asked a fact question, and you don’t know the
answer, don’t (under any circumstances) make up an answer. Your
credibility as a leader as well as your reputation in your area of
expertise will plummet faster than you can imagine when you’re
found out (and you will be). In this situation, simply reply, “I don’t
know, but I’ll check the facts and get back to you.” Now your obli-
gation is to do what you promised. Check the facts and get back to
the person who asked the question. Your reputation will be
enhanced as long as you follow through.
Answering when the answer is No
No means no, but leaders and parents often fall into the same trap
and use it to mean maybe. This is a place when your past track record
will serve or haunt you. If you consistently say no when you mean
no and say maybe when you mean maybe, then, over time, answering
with a no will be easier.
However, if you consistently deliver no responses without pro-
viding a context for the no, you will be seen as an autocratic leader.
Never having aspired to that particular title, I’ve always chosen to
focus on the context that produced the no answer.
One of a leader’s most significant roles is that of teacher; deliv-
ering context is the best place I know to see leader-as-teacher in
action. Saying no tells people what not to do, but it doesn’t teach
them anything. When leaders take the time to describe the process
they use to reach a decision, they are teaching. If you explain the
data you reviewed, the conversations you had and with whom, and
the decision-making criteria you used, others will not only under-
stand this decision, but they’ll be able to follow your process the next
time it’s their turn to make a decision.
Who knew how valuable a no could be?
Answering when there isn’t an answer
Some questions just can’t be answered. Not because you can’t reveal
information or because all the facts aren’t in, but because there just
isn’t an answer.
Life is full of questions that can’t be answered. How big is the
universe? How high is up? Why do bad things happen to good peo-
ple? These questions exist, and people aren’t happy about them. I
believe that most people think of questions as if they were mystery
novels. Some are so easy that you know who did it right from the
beginning of the book. Others are more complex and take a while
to figure out. Good mystery novels, like good questions, challenge
you to think, and when you do, there’s great satisfaction. Then
there’s the complex mystery you’ve read with great attention. You’ve
struggled with red herrings and thought you had it solved several
times only to realize you were wrong. You approach the end of the
book defeated but happy that the ending will explain it all. You turn
to the final chapter and realize that someone has torn the last two
pages out of the book. There is no answer to the mystery.
Some questions can never be answered just as some mysteries
will never be solved. People don’t like that fact, leaders don’t like
it, and I don’t like it. But it is the truth. So when you’re faced with
a question that can’t be answered, do the only thing possible—tell
the truth.
Answering when you can’t answer
State secrets, confidential information, competitive analysis—you
know the whole thing, and someone asks you a question about it.
The butterflies start immediately. The person who asked is trust-
worthy, and you’ve been their leader for a long time. They know you
know. You know that they know that you know. You can’t answer.
You’ve been cautioned, warned even. Your hands are tied. Isn’t being
a leader fun?
Try this answer on for size. “Sometimes it’s difficult to be a
leader. One of the most difficult parts of leadership for me is when
my responsibility to the members of my team comes into conflict
with my responsibilities as a leader in our organization. This is one
of those times. I will not be able to be as open with you now as I
have in the past. That being said, I want you to know that I will tell
you all that I can as soon as I can. I realize this puts a strain on our
relationship as a team. I can only hope that my behavior in the past
will allow you to trust my behavior now.”
I know, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best I’ve ever been able to come
up with. If you’ve found a better answer, please share it with me.
Answering when no one wants to hear
the answer
You know the truth; they know the truth. It’s just that no one wants
to hear it. Flash back to your college days and hear the groan that
followed the professor’s “quiz tomorrow” announcement.
Remember your reaction when your child’s teacher called and said
that your firstborn wasn’t working up to their potential. These
both represent important messages delivered to people who are
hoping against hope not to hear them. There are lots of these
moments in business. Leaders who have messages to deliver that
no one wants to hear. Layoffs. Mergers. Reorganizations. Projects
that get cancelled. Mandatory overtime. In these situations the
message is fixed. No amount of wordsmithing is going to make
hearing about a 10 percent reduction in your workforce sound or
feel better. Focus on the delivery.
DON’T send this message via voice mail, e-mail or Webcast. It
will be tempting, and I know you can build a case for both efficiency
and cost savings, but getting a message out isn’t the same as having
a message heard.
DO deliver the message in person (or deputize others to stand in
for you at various locations) so you can see your people and they can
see you. The only way you can come close to guarantee that an I-
don’t-want-to-hear-it message is received is to look into people’s eyes.
Be creative and be thoughtful. Denial isn’t a river in Egypt. If
you underestimate the criticality of delivering a consistently under-
stood message and verifying its reception, you’re going to have a
very long day.
Answering a question that’s just too personal
This one’s pretty short and sweet. Just because you’re a leader and
someone has asked you a question doesn’t mean you always have to
answer it. It is perfectly okay to establish some boundaries, usually
around your personal life, that you’re not willing to cross. As long
Don’t answer a question just
because it’s asked.
—Marilyn Mobley,
American PR specialist
as you afford others the same respect with regard to their own
boundaries and you let the people around you know about your lim-
its, you should be okay. All you need to say is, “That question falls
in an area that you already know I don’t discuss.”
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Tough or simple? Probably a little of both. Leadership is many
things, and on some days it’s hard. Delivering answers that fall into
the categories in this chapter isn’t fun. Most leaders, especially the
kind that would be reading this book, like to be open, approach-
able, and fun. Answering with “No, I can’t tell you,” or “You’re not
going to like to hear this” doesn’t qualify as open, approachable,
or fun. But there are times when they’re the right answer to give.
Recently I was part of a task force dealing with some sensitive
issues. At the end of our long, into-the-wee-hours-of-the-morning
meeting, we all agreed that the information and substance of our
conversation needed to be held in confidence until all the parties
involved could be notified. It was my job to deliver the messages the
Bromidic though it may sound,
some questions don’t have
answers, which is a terribly
difficult lesson to learn.
—Katharine Graham, American newspa-
per publisher
next morning. Imagine my dismay when I started to deliver those
messages and discovered that some of the individuals had already
heard, via the grapevine, the outcome of our deliberations.
My disappointment was not so much that the information was
leaked. That just made me mad. My disappointment stemmed from
the fact that my colleagues, people I considered leaders, didn’t know
how to answer a question that required a tough answer.
I’m sorry, we’ve agreed to keep the meetings confidential.
No, I can’t answer that.
You can ask me that several times, and my answer will still be the
I will give you that information as soon as it’s possible.
Leaders need to deliver a tough answer once in a while. I guess
it just takes practice.
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1. Which of the tough-answer situations in this chapter did you find
most compelling? Why?
2. What other types of answers would you find it difficult to deliver?
3. How would you deal with communicating those answers?
4. What is the one thing you want to remember most from this

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