It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

–"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Ambiguity, Organizational Stress and Leading Well

Back in the late 1980’s when I was doing recon­nais­sance into how well peo­ple were speak­ing up in orga­ni­za­tions, there were two main behav­iors by lead­ers that peo­ple told me caused them to become care­ful about express­ing them­selves. One was abra­sive behav­ior by lead­ers — shout­ing, crit­i­ciz­ing, insult­ing or oth­er­wise under­min­ing peo­ple. The oth­er lead­er­ship behav­ior was ambi­gu­i­ty — behav­iors by lead­ers that could not be eas­i­ly read or under­stood. Exam­ples of ambi­gu­i­ty embraced every­thing from lack of guid­ance regard­ing work pri­or­i­ties to not reply­ing to sug­ges­tions for change to pass­ing one’s man­ag­er in the hall with­out so much as a friend­ly nod or hel­lo. These small and large behav­iors induced ten­sion in peo­ple because they rep­re­sent­ed forms of social dis­tanc­ing, lead­ing to ques­tions such as “if he does­n’t say good morn­ing to me when he goes by my desk am I, in fact, in trouble?”


Over the years, I’ve observed how forms of ambi­gu­i­ty can lead peo­ple into very neg­a­tive spaces. Ambi­gu­i­ty, after all means that two or more inter­pre­ta­tions of the same behav­ior are viable, and giv­en human pro­cliv­i­ties for see­ing threats in what is not cer­tain, the nat­ur­al out­come of too much ambi­gu­i­ty is stress and all too often, mis­trust. This is con­sis­tent with lead­er­ship neu­ro­sci­en­tist, David Rock, who defined the pow­er of cer­tain­ty as part of his SCARF mod­el for enhanc­ing social inter­ac­tions, and in its absence, as uncer­tain­ty, its poten­tial as a source of threat. The word clar­i­ty also comes to mind. This all has to do with the brain’s abil­i­ty to pre­dict the short-term future and our expe­ri­ence of anx­i­ety when it cannot.

By that def­i­n­i­tion, the cur­rent times are over­whelmed with ambi­gu­i­ty and the inabil­i­ty to pre­dict what’s com­ing next. We all are expe­ri­enc­ing a heavy load of back­ground stress from what’s hap­pen­ing to soci­ety and to the plan­et. Lead­ers there­fore are well-advised to pay atten­tion to the amount of ambi­gu­i­ty with­in their orga­ni­za­tion­al lives and what they can do about it. Along with the need for “psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty” and work that is tru­ly mean­ing­ful, this is a time when build­ing a cer­tain amount of pre­dictabil­i­ty into orga­ni­za­tion­al life will like­ly gar­ner a stronger sense of affil­i­a­tion and com­mit­ment. Work, after all, may be one place where clar­i­ty and pur­pose serve to uni­fy and sta­bi­lize things for people. 

This does­n’t mean that some­how high­ly repet­i­tive work or main­tain­ing com­pa­ny rit­u­als (the pres­i­dent annu­al­ly hand­ing out turkeys to staff at Thanks­giv­ing) is the kind of cer­tain­ty that will stop the Great Res­ig­na­tion. Nor is it about fos­ter­ing less of a sense of free­dom and auton­o­my for staff. Peo­ple need that, too. The kind I am talk­ing about has to do with lead­ers, in par­tic­u­lar, hav­ing their act togeth­er in a vari­ety of ways. Peo­ple look to their lead­ers for acces­si­bil­i­ty, dia­logue and a will­ing­ness to pro­vide clar­i­ty, includ­ing, at times, tak­ing a stand even when it might be risky to do so. Clar­i­ty involves such things as:

Being clear and trans­par­ent about the over­all pur­pose and strate­gies of the orga­ni­za­tion (over­all, your depart­ment, your team) in a way that makes sense to peo­ple. It’s a real­ly weird time. How are you mak­ing the work of your orga­ni­za­tion par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant to those doing the work? Can they see it’s val­ue? What is your actu­al vision about that?

Being clear and in dia­logue with staff around thorny val­ues dis­crep­an­cies — the kind of inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions that staff notice and uncom­fort­ably bring up (“You say the orga­ni­za­tion aims to help peo­ple grow, but it’s a black box — but who knows why some peo­ple progress here and oth­ers do not?”) or raise as eth­i­cal ques­tions (“Why did we say ‘yes’ to that client when we all know we can’t do what they want for the price they are paying?”)

Being clear about deci­sions, espe­cial­ly things peo­ple have been expect­ing or have been promised — e.g., Are we mov­ing ahead with restruc­tur­ing our depart­ment or not? What will it take to get there? Why have we been wait­ing? When will it start? When will it be done?

Being clear about expec­ta­tions — what do you, as a leader, actu­al­ly want and need from oth­ers right now? So much empha­sis has been placed on adapt­ing, on “piv­ot­ing,” on resilience that it may actu­al­ly be unclear to peo­ple when it’s okay to ask for help and when they are just sup­posed to get things done on their own. Dit­to lack of clar­i­ty about roles, author­i­ties, inter­de­pen­den­cies, goals.

Being clear in address­ing known (or should have known) prob­lems. Giv­en the pres­sures and new world in which we all seem to be oper­at­ing, a mil­lion things can — and will — come up: over­work — of lead­ers and of staff, insen­si­tive or dis­crim­i­na­to­ry behav­ior, lack of prop­er coach­ing and guid­ance, fail­ure to del­e­gate or aban­don­ment of staff, dis­en­gage­ment of peo­ple, sys­tems and process prob­lems of all kinds, lack of bound­aries, and too many of them. These prob­lems often reveal a lack of true part­ner­ship, part­ner­ship based on as get­ting as much truth as pos­si­ble into the open and demon­strat­ing as much care for oth­ers as human­ly possible.

None of this is to say things need to be rigid­i­fied. To the con­trary, things need to be more open, not less. Espe­cial­ly around top­ics that can­not be clear right now or that are new. “Yes, it’s true, we haven’t firmed up our work from home pol­i­cy and I agree it’s been way too long.” It’s okay to say that, but what else along side that? What the process is for input. Who’s han­dling it. When is some form of the pol­i­cy expect­ed. These things seem obvi­ous in a way, but too often late­ly there have been unex­pect­ed shifts and delays and, frankly, not every lead­er­ship team seems to have its act together.

This “not hav­ing its act togeth­er” by the lead­er­ship team is per­haps the great­est of the sources of ambi­gu­i­ty that cause orga­ni­za­tion­al stress. The thing about these times is that they low­er the water-line on all the big and lit­tle rocks in the pond. It’s okay that things aren’t per­fect — and in a way it may be kind of a gift for the water to be low­er — but lead­er­ship teams must take action on the obvi­ous as it appears: the ancient, embed­ded con­flicts between depart­ments, the con­duct of those who have always been off on their own agen­da or have cho­sen to wall off in their sep­a­rate silos. The way the work is (or isn’t) orga­nized. The deep­er con­cerns of staff. What­ev­er and wher­ev­er part­ner­ship among peo­ple has failed, been neglect­ed or sub-optimized. 

When times are ambigu­ous, the ambi­gu­i­ties that both define and under­mine orga­ni­za­tion­al life may come roar­ing to the sur­face — as they have for many work­places since the begin­ning of the pan­dem­ic. Which is to say, if you are lead­ing right now, take good care of your­self and your orga­ni­za­tion. This is, after all, a vital moment and a rich oppor­tu­ni­ty to show up.

The Death card from the Tarot augers trans­for­ma­tion, rebirth and self-knowledge.

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