Navigating Transitions by the Power of Inquiry


In his speech and interaction with Sarah Green Carmichael, Hal Gregersen proposes using questioning and inquiring as a tool to make sense of this unprecedented crisis that the world is in.

We are living in and definitely uncertain times. All of us are asking questions and doing things we never did before. It is unnerving and uncertain, and amid those challenges, we can get utterly overwhelmed. Questions, inquiries are at the core of our ability to make sense of this enormous sense of uncertainty, anxiety, and overwhelmingness. 

At this time, we are having to learn new ways of doing things. We are sliding down the learning curve, and not just one or two, but hundreds of learning curves where we used to know what we were doing. We often think of these learning curves as behavioural and cognitive but we sometimes miss that there is a deep emotional component to sliding down that curve. Our collective experience during this time is also related in a way to the cross-cultural adjustment curve that was used during the early stages of globalization and leaders were going global for about a decade. The cross-cultural adjustment curve looks just like a learning curve tilted on its side so that the curve becomes a “U”, starting high up from the honeymoon effect to then sliding down deep into culture shock and adjustment. It takes usually three to nine months to adjust and then the slope rises upwards towards adapting to the new culture. 

We are going through a massive cross-cultural adjustment in our own home country, irrespective of where we are in the world.

In a study on people moving from one country to the other, it was discovered that on average, people who go through those curves with at least one international assignment deliver higher returns for the company when they become the CEO. They learned by going through that dark space, the shock of living, and working in a different culture where they probably don’t know the language, nor the business and still have to get things done. However, when they go back home, the curve comes back again. The shock of going home is more difficult than the shock of going overseas and the challenges associated with it because we don’t expect that. This is similar to what is happening now. We are living in a Coronavirus country now. We are going through a massive cross-cultural adjustment in our own home country, irrespective of where we are in the world. It is the Coronavirus country for all of us. Many of us have been isolated in quarantine in our foreign country/home whereas some are starting to go back to work. This is called the reverse culture shock and we are going to be in for even more anxiety potentially when we start moving out of these home spaces.

We are behaviourally, cognitively, and emotionally inundated with trying to deal with the changes that are with us in this new country of Coronavirus. We are asking ourselves simple questions like “When do I wear a face mask?”, “Can I go to the hospital to get a crucial check?”, but also many difficult questions. Those who have serious healthcare challenges that are not coronavirus related, they are asking, “Can I even go to the hospital now?”. We are dealing with everything all at once.

We have dropped off of learning curves where we knew what we were doing, and with those losses come grief. This is at the core of all of the anxiety we are experiencing. With that grief, we feel fragile and vulnerable. There are big issues and then thousands of little issues, and collectively it causes us all to feel fragile and vulnerable. When we are in that fragile vulnerable state, it is easy to blow up, to let loose, and for things to take over us. We then get emotionally flooded where it’s not just the anxiety that is there, but anger, concern, worry, and challenge. When that happens, the instinctual human response in the moment is to act, to avoid the fear, to avoid the grief, to avoid the feelings to do something, and just start moving. We have often heard this phrase, “Don’t just stand there, do something,” but if we don’t reverse this logic to “Don’t just do something, stand there,” we will pay for it later. If we don’t deal with the emotions of going through transitions, we will pay for it sooner or later. 

Questions are not ends in and of themselves. They are the means to an end, and the end here is a conversation and substance.

During uncertain moments, reflective quiet is powerful. Whether it is through meditation, a walk on the beach or just sitting in a closet, reflective quiet is taking a moment to be reflective and attending to and paying attention to what is happening inside and outside the self. In an uncertain moment, stopping to breathe, think, observe, and ask before acting can make all the difference. It is because once we get somewhat grounded ourselves, we can start asking emotionally grounded questions to reach out to somebody else. This is especially important for leaders. Leadership is not about us, but about others, about getting great things done through other people. This requires us to understand what is going on inside us first, with all these emotions and all this fragile vulnerability, so that we can then engage with the world. 

Asking others just two simple questions, “How are you today?” and “How can I help?” can make all the difference. Questions are not ends in and of themselves. They are the means to an end, and the end here is a conversation and substance. When we are emotionally flooded or overwhelmed, we need someone to listen. It opens up a new window when someone simply listens to you. Questions are the answer when we’re operating on the edge of uncertainty. If we do this exercise where we just stop, breathe, ask nothing but questions about our challenge for a couple of minutes, 85% of the time, we will move to a different, better, more positive place. Decades of research show that we are more likely to get a better new question, a valuable new idea, or progress on our challenge if we are in a more positive emotional state. When we stop, step back and ask nothing but questions, we give ourselves a receptive, reflective quiet moment with ourselves and/or others for our emotions to shift from negative to positive. As per data, 80% of the feel better after doing this exercise.

The crisis is a profound thermometer of our leadership effectiveness before we ever got here because my ability as a leader to help you right now in crisis mode is utterly dependent on your trust level in me.

In doing this exercise, some people also feel a lot worse because they realize that their problem is much bigger than they ever thought it was, and for others, it is a sombre moment, which is sobering. They realize they are a bigger part of the problem they ever thought they were, so they feel worse. But it is better to feel worse right now than four months from now when even more resources are at risk. 

This exercise works not only at work but also at home. It is a way of helping ourselves get through the downside of those transition curves and up the other direction at any stage we get stuck. In those moments, jotting down questions for a minute, whether alone or with a friend or colleague, can help us make progress.

Sarah Green Carmichael in Conversation with Hal Gregersen

Sarah Green Carmichael:Is there any way to speed up the learning curve to move through that dip more quickly and get to the other side?

Hal Gregersen: When we have so many things changing and we are trying to make so much progress on so many different things, it is overwhelming. We have to somehow create the space at any point in that curve to get a sense of where we are and get settled. Then, we can identify what is the most important thing right now. At MIT, we use the term challenge-driven leadership rather than leader, because we follow challenges, not people. And one of the best things to do at any stuck point in that curve is to try to step back enough to identify a challenge in a way that is definable so that we can start working on that element of where we are stuck as opposed to this global catastrophe where nothing is working. Once that challenge is there, take two to four minutes to do this question burst process, and 85% of the time, it will lift you and get you out of the rut. 

In the workshops I do to help people become better leaders, I almost always have them do this question burst process in pairs, trios, and small teams. Doing it exposes me to others that I don’t know everything. It also invites them into my vulnerability, to be part of my challenge. One fascinating thing is that when you help someone with their stuckness by giving them all the possible questions they should be thinking about to be able to make progress on it, they will make better progress than if they were simply given some suggested solutions. The one giving those questions would also be more committed after the conversation to think about what they talked about, and will be connected to the other person’s challenge. It is a double-dip help in that sense.

Sarah Green Carmichael: As a leader, how do you help people who are looking to you for leadership during this time?

Hal Gregersen: The crisis is a profound thermometer of our leadership effectiveness before we ever got here because my ability as a leader to help you right now in crisis mode is utterly dependent on your trust level in me. So, if the leaders have taken the time and the energy over the past 12 months to ask their people simple questions like “How are you today?” and “How can I help you make progress today?” before this crisis ever started, now those questions will receive even richer, deeper and more nuanced answers and responses. Now, some of us haven’t been doing that, and now we are distant and virtual. Now that we are working from home, some of the leaders don’t know where to start because they have never done it before. My approach is a vulnerable base, in the sense that I may not have done this before but I’m learning through this whole process of me being isolated, and I want to reach out more to be a support around what you are wrestling with. That whole conversation is again, not about me, it is about working to help someone else identify some nugget of a challenge where they could start making progress as well.

Sarah Green Carmichael: Is that question burst really about determining which is the right question? If so, how would you do that, and then how do you move from that narrowing into an action of some kind?

Hal Gregersen: I am deeply committed to doing catalytic questions. It challenges a fundamental assumption and gives us the energy to do something about it. Twenty years ago, when Marc Benioff at Salesforce asked, “How can we sell enterprise-level software like Amazon sells books?”, it was catalytic. It challenged the fundamental assumption that you couldn’t sell software, enterprise software on the internet, which you could, and it gave him the energy to do something about it. That is the kind of question we look for. Every one of these question bursts is a stepping stone to the better question or set of questions. So, once I get this done, I look through those questions, and I may generate some criteria, based on which I will choose the questions that matter most. It could be questions that made me feel most uncomfortable because that is probably probing an assumption that could be false for the situation. It might be questions that I find interesting to collect some data on. So, getting two or three of these questions can move you to act and get to work.

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