How should you respond to your employees when you don’t have the answers?
When you lead a team, especially in uncertain times, your employees often come to you for guidance, context, and clarity. And while sometimes you’ll have the right information and useful updates to share, there will undoubtedly be cases when you simply don’t know.
Whether you are unsure about the future or timelines, restructuring or layoffs, or a whole host of other things, the way you address it with your employees greatly impacts the way they feel moving forward and how they view you as a leader.
So, how should you respond when you don’t have the answers?
Consider each employee’s needs:
Firstly, it’s important to recognize that different employees require different approaches to these kinds of conversations. Some of your team members may feel most comfortable getting the full, direct picture while others may require more cushioning and assurance when you don’t have the answers. So, do your best to evaluate how the employee would best receive the information and make sure you navigate the conversation in a way that addresses those needs.
Be open :
Being a great leader doesn’t mean you always have all the answers. It means you are skilled at giving guidance and support regardless of whether you have the information your team member is seeking at that moment. Honesty is essential to building trust with your team members, so however you choose to frame it, it’s important to be open when you don’t know.
Sometimes you may know where to look for necessary information, in which case you can share the steps you plan on taking to get clear answers. However, other times it may just be a waiting game. In those cases, be transparent that many things are up in the air and that it will take time before things become clear.
Emphasize what you do know:
One of the ways to instill confidence even in the face of uncertainty is by focusing on elements that you do know. For example, if a team member wants to know if their role is going to change from organizational restructuring, you know it likely will, but decisions haven’t been finalized yet, share some useful snippets you’re already sure about. For example, you can respond with something like, “I know these changes are going to be cross-departmental, so there is a chance it could impact your role. That being said, all of the adjustments taking place are very well-thought-out, so if it does affect you, I’m confident it will present awesome new ways for you to grow and develop.”
Create action items:
Even in times of uncertainty, there are steps you can take to convey a sense of control and confidence. Share action items on your side that you will take to get more answers, including speaking with key decision-makers, preparing relevant material on your end, and following up with the right people. As often as possible, don’t end a conversation involving uncertainty without action items that you, as the manager, plan to take to get more information. Even if it’s as simple as, “I’m going to follow up with my manager and get back to you.”
One of the most important ways to make your employees feel more at ease in these scenarios is by promising to update them as soon as you can. Make it clear that you recognize how challenging it can be to not have answers, and that you will do everything on your end to keep them in the loop and aware of any updates that may provide greater clarity.
Identify underlying concerns:
During the conversation, try to understand the underlying needs of your team members. That way, even when you don’t have the exact answer they are seeking, you can still provide support and guidance that addresses some of those deeper concerns. For example, if an employee wants to know when they will have an update on a potential promotion and you don’t have the answer, you can provide positive recognition and address their desire for a real growth path within the company. You can make it clear that you recognize their incredible achievements and emphasize that you are pushing for their growth behind the scenes. This way, regardless of what happens, they can leave the conversation feeling sure that you, as their manager, have their best interests in mind.
Check in as you go:
Conversations without concrete answers can be difficult, so make sure to check in on your team member during the conversation to see how they are feeling. Allow those check-ins to guide you in terms of where to focus your attention and direction. These exchanges should help make your employee feel supported, heard, and as assured as possible, even when there is no real certainty. And of course, instill a sense of confidence that you have their back and will keep them updated as important information comes your way.