The Virtue of Admitting When Things Are Ambiguous

Article main image
Apr 2, 2019

The March HR (Cincinnati) Roundtable took on a topic that is often a subject of frustration among employees, but little is done about it. Every company has some level of ambiguity and a lack of clarity when it comes to work, direction and even strategy. The attendees started with the following questions to try to clear things up.

  1. Why do we have a different “face” at work?
  2. Why is being ambiguous a “good thing”?
  3. How can we bring clarity to work?

As soon as the small groups started talking, they dove into the questions quickly. It was obvious that we had hit a sore point for many, so the discussions were very rich. Here’s what they had to share:

1. Why do we have a different “face” at work?

We fake it until we make it — How sad is this? In an era where companies want to be “employers of choice,” how can this still be occurring? However, it is the reality for many. Taking on the persona we feel fits the situation we’re in gives us a stronger feel of safety in our roles. It shouldn’t be the model or practice people feel that they have to take on in order to work.

Fear of judgment and/or losing your job — It seems that people are concerned about standing out too much. The more they blend in, the less personal risk is assumed. It was shared that conformity is the norm for most organizations. We want people to “fit in” more than be themselves.

Conformity causes stagnation — We don’t see this because it’s such a strong force within organizations and especially in HR. We feel that if we have little variability then there is more control. If there is more control, then there is more productivity. This has never proven to be the case. Never. However, very few people are willing to put themselves out there to push against the norms that are expected in a company’s make-up. The more conformity that is present, the more stagnate the environment.

Steve shared a resource at this point which is a podcast called “Value Through Vulnerability” hosted by Garry Turner. Garry is a consultant in the UK and his podcast explores topics around being authentic and vulnerable at work. You can find Garry’s podcast on his site here.

2. Why is being ambiguous a “good thing”?

Ambiguity at work is not a good thing. This was meant to draw out the behaviors that we force people to take on because there isn’t clarity. Here are some fantastic examples of how people behave because there is ambiguity in our cultures.

We don’t want people to know what we’re not doing — This was an incredibly honest response! There is a myth in the workplace that everyone is productive, effective and efficient every moment of the day. We all assume that everyone is “working,” but do you know that? There are countless examples of people who throw your attention to situations which are an outlying facet of work just to distract you from putting attention on them. Hopefully, this is an exception in most companies. But, it is a reality.

We just create more policies — This is a notorious habit of HR. We feel that if something is unclear, we should create a policy that “deals” with the situation. This practice ends up creating layers and layers of rules that are never followed consistently. People can’t perform, let alone exist, in an environment which is only a series of endless dos and don’ts. Policies don’t bring about clarity. They just bring about another policy. Remember this – values empower, rules confine.

People make things up in order to move forward — When clarity is missing, people still want to do good work. So, they make up answers to fill the gaps. This isn’t to be defiant. They just want to move forward, and if they can’t claw through the ambiguity they experience with some direction and/or process, they’ll still strive to do their work to the best of their ability. At times, this can create new approaches that have never been tried, and that is a good thing. Too often though, people get corrected for not following a process which was never clear in the first places. Our focus is far too narrow regarding compliance than it is performance.

3. How can we bring clarity to work?

Have parameters and not policies — Give people the breadth and resources to do their job. Allow them the room to have ideas, input and be creative within a framework where the boundaries are clear. The boundaries could be items like budget, timelines or milestones. People want to hit goals and produce results. We just need to give them the defined playing field to do so.

Expect people to perform not conform — Every company has norms and a culture. You will attract and keep folks who want to work in your environment and/or industry. That occurs naturally. Since that is the case, set expectations that you want your employees to thrive and perform. When you take this positive approach, it works more often than not. It also forces you to work with the majority of your people who are amazing instead of creating systems for those who are the exception. Turn the tide on this.

Be a storyteller — People learn from stories. We always have. There are stories and experiences which happen on a daily basis in your organization. We just miss them and don’t capture them. You can communicate processes, policies and procedures through contextual stories. It is far more effective than sends dictates through email. Give people a picture of what you expect, and they’ll follow along.

Gather input from others — Before setting directions and strategies, gather information from others so that you avoid either groupthink or a narrow approach based on “what we’ve always done.” There’s no guarantee that every idea that is shared will be used, but you need the input and perspective of others. When people feel they’ve had a chance to be included, they’re more likely to come alongside the direction(s) that is set.

Expect authenticity by modeling it yourself — Strip the “fake it until you make it” behavior from your company’s culture. Every person in your organization is unique and has so much to bring to their role and your culture. Allow them to be authentic by making it safe for them. The more we allow people to be themselves, the more they’ll perform.

Be upfront about your intentions — It’s OK to admit that ambiguity exists. We tend to move along the edges of not wanting to admit this is happening because we believe it will communicate a weakness of leadership. That is an unfounded fear. However, it often keeps companies stuck in place. In order to break out of this churn, it’s better to admit your current challenge out loud. People appreciate vulnerability more than they do when people just try to plow through with little explanation. Try this and come clean. Then you can set the table for where you want things to go – with clarity.

This was a great, interactive session of the HR Roundtable. We had another incredible turnout which only makes the forum stronger. I hope you can make it to an HR Roundtable in person on a regular basis. The Roundtable is better because we get to meet you and hear your perspectives on topics! Try to make the time to attend.

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