HR Roundtable: What Do You Do With Ambiguous Leadership?

Dec 16, 2014

Everyone clamors for fantastic leadership in their organizations.

Books, blogs, and conference sessions are dedicated to outstanding leadership. But, what happens when your leadership is ambiguous?

This is more common than people are willing to admit in today’s workplace. So, the December HR Roundtable in Cincinnati decided to take this topic on and started with these three questions:

  1. How does ambiguous leadership show itself in organizations?
  2. Why do we let ambiguous leadership occur?
  3. How can HR clear up the ambiguity?

The attendees couldn’t wait to jump in with both feet on this topic. The conversation was rapid and engaged. Their responses will show you that, so take a look!

How does ambiguous leadership show itself?

  • Negativity and discontent from employees — Yippee! This is wonderful isn’t it? It is true though. If employees see that leadership is unclear and vague, they will make up what is “really” happening. Since people tend to be negative first as a filter, they drive the morale train to new lows.
  • Ignorance (Don’t know, don’t care) — Some leaders just turn a blind eye to their environment. They feel that if they’re not made aware of what’s occurring, then it must not exist. This represents an extremely narrow focus, but it happens more often than we care to admit.
  • Poor performance from leadership — Smoke and mirrors can only hide poor performance for a short period of time. Leaders may get “wins” every once in a while, but if they are ambiguous, their performance will reflect that. It also may inadvertently lead to poor performance of their team/department as well.
  • Higher turnover — This was a fascinating response because HR uses turnover as one of its key metrics, but are you looking for causes? Is ambiguity on your scale? It should be because we need to remember that many folks who turnover are our best and brightest. If they work for someone who isn’t clear, there’s no reason to stay.
  • Waste of resources — This may be more of a result versus a sign. If a leader doesn’t practice accountability in the stewardship of his/her resources, then there will be higher waste than in other areas where accountability exists. Also, employees will be lax in watching their resources if they know that their leaders don’t care.
  •  “It isn’t my problem” syndrome — This is better known as deflecting. It is visible when any situation is brought to the attention of a leader and the first reaction is to point out that it is someone else’s responsibility and not their concern. Deflecting is a detrimental behavior that can tear down cultures very quickly.
  • Silo builders — Ambiguous leaders want to be left alone. They seek the least interactions and the least confrontation possible. Building an internally focused group is key because it raises walls that keep everyone else out. It also makes barriers to getting things done – which is fine for the leader who would rather float through work.
  • Lack of cohesion and a ceiling for accomplishment — Without someone to give vision, direction and energy, people will float too. They will model the behavior of how the leader treats others. This doesn’t mean a person is unpleasant in any way. The fact is they are probably very personable, but they lack substance. Departments and organizations with this type of leadership can only see mediocre results. There’s nothing challenging them to do more.

Why do we let ambiguous leadership occur?

  • Fear (You knew this had to come up in an HR Roundtable summary!) — There is some merit in this response. People are afraid of leaders who may have the ability to terminate someone, or if their lack of clarity affects productivity. Working for a leader with that kind of power would be unsettling for any of their direct reports.
  • We avoid confrontation — Very few people enjoy confrontation. Most of us will do all we can to avoid it and make sure difficult conversations never occur. So, it’s easier to avoid someone than confront them with their behavior. This is true of senior managers, mid-level managers and even HR. It makes us feel icky, and we don’t like that feeling at work.
  • The “Mutual of Omaha syndrome” — Steve shared that there used to be a show called Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom where they’d show all types of wild animals from around the globe. One of his faves was when the lonely gazelle who wandered away from the pack was taken down by a cheetah. People don’t want to be that gazelle in today’s workplace. Even though others may have the same feeling about the ambiguous leader, they don’t want to be the only person willing to stand up to them.
  • We want others to handle it — Similar to the deflecting of the ambiguous leader, people think that the problem to address is someone else’s responsibility and not there’s. This leads to a constant feeling of churning and frustration. It may also pit people against each other within a department. It needs to be someone’s responsibility, but it takes courage to make that happen.
  • We can’t fix the asymmetry — An ambiguous leader throws everything out of balance. We don’t know how to fix it because things seem to be so off kilter. Employees want to go to the leader to bring stasis back, but they are the ones whose behavior that is causing the imbalance in the first place!

How can HR clear up the ambiguity?

  • HR has to stop being ambiguous first — This is the “ouch” comment, but it rings true. If you ask employees outside of HR, they will tell you that they see ambiguity come from HR more than other departments. Because HR wants to play it safe more often than not, ambiguity can creep in. HR needs to own this and turn it around. Be the model of leadership you expect from others.
  • Communicate “with” people and not “at” them — This may seem simple, or something you’d see on a poster in an office. However, it’s key to turning things around. If everything is seen as a launch to performance plans, discipline or other archaic methods of addressing poor behavior, then the person will shift just enough to get you off their back. Teach people how to communicate well and show them how to include people vs. delude them.
  • Explain the WHY — Giving people context can clear most situations up quickly. We tend not to want to give people the “why” because we’re too busy or don’t have time for that. We think people will just “get it” and that is never the case. Take the time. This simple step could help clear up a myriad of grayness.
  • Make it safe — People want leaders, and employees, to be transparent. However, the moment they are people attack and it’s not pretty. HR can be the safe haven to facilitate and mediate situations, conversations and even confrontations. Be the referee at your company and not the judge.
  • Kill the trolls — There are people who shouldn’t be in leadership. If you’ve done what you can to address behavior and performance, but aren’t seeing better results or attitudes, then make a change. Making people suffer just because they should gut it out is just silly. If companies do this, then I would question all of the leadership.
  • Approach is key — We send our employees to training all the time for listening and leadership. They learn methods and models that are very much an “off the shelf” model. There are components that work in most environments, but they also fall short. A different tactic is to teach others how to approach people. We don’t teach relationship building, and if we did we’d be light years ahead of how it’s currently being done.

It seems like we just scratched the surface of this topic. The HR Roundtable attendees wanted to keep going, so we must have hit a nerve. I’m sure we’ll revisit this topic in some fashion in the future.

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!