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.