‘Twas the night before lockdown when all across the city people were out enjoying their last night of relative freedom. I for one was out having dinner with a friend. We were having a good gossip and catch up, before we would once again be confined to our respective homes. Inevitably, the subject of lockdown came up and we expressed our hopes that it would on this occasion, actually end on December 2nd, when the current legislation goes back to Parliament. This prompted my friend to pose the question: Why doesn’t Boris give us all a straightforward answer? We all know that lockdown will only end if cases and hospitalisations are sufficiently low so why doesn’t Boris just come out and say that instead of committing to a deadline that may or may not be possible.
Boris sees himself as a ‘Churchillian leader’, a firm, strong and decisive politician. His campaign to become Prime Minister focused on a simple no-nonsense promise to Get Brexit Done. An Etonian through and through he has often been accused of a, “fake it ‘til you make it” approach, overly reliant on rhetoric and bluster to avoid the detail. However, sometimes the best communications tactic is to admit that you simply don’t have all the answers right now. Especially when you are tackling the response to a novel pandemic, which not even the finest scientific minds seem to be able to agree on.
Had Boris come out and said that the end of lockdown depends on cases going down it might have given incentive to some people to comply with the rules, a bit of carrot and stick.
In communications it is important not to make promises that you cannot knowingly commit to. On occasions, admitting you don’t have all the answers can help to build trust with stakeholders and show your authenticity as a leader.
By giving over-confident and simplistic answers, leaders may look strong in the moment, but over the long term it can catch you out. People start to become disillusioned or may question what you are saying if they have heard it before and been let down. The best leaders that I have worked with have never been afraid to admit if they don’t have all the answers and seek help in finding them.
Here are some ways of saying “I don’t know” without making it seem like you don’t know:
- Say what you know based on current information. Often in crisis situations people are looking for certainty and that can be difficult to provide if events are still unfolding. Make it clear that your answer is based on the facts that are available right now and acknowledge that the situation is evolving.
- Seek to clarify. If you are asked a question that you haven’t got the answer to, see if you can extract more information from the person asking the question that might help you form an answer.
- Seek help from others. Strong leaders know their limitations and surround themselves by teams who can fill in the gaps in their own knowledge. Turning a “I don’t know” into a request for information is a sign of integrity and a desire to get things right.
- Connect to someone who does know. As above, leadership is about putting the right teams in place and if there is someone who is better placed to answer a specific question than yourself then direct the question to them. This is especially true when detailed scientific or technological information is requested.
Hopefully, there will not be [yet another] a u-turn on the end of this lockdown but based on previous experience I’m not rushing into arranging an (outdoor) dinner with friends on December 3rd.