Demand Straight Talk – Ambiguity Causes Workplace Anger and Anxiety

By Thomas J. DeLong

During World War II, Winston Churchill was marking up a classified document that the Allied Forces generals were waiting for in order to go into action.

On one of the pages Churchill wrote, “Watch the borders,” referring to the manner in which the typist had left little room for him to make comments in the margins. When the generals read the document they believed that they were being advised by Churchill to watch the English borders in southeast England in order to stop a possible invasion by the enemy.

Luckily, there was no invasion. Luckily, thousands weren’t killed because of a misunderstanding between Churchill and his generals and the typist.

High-need-for-achievement professionals need clarity, not ambiguity. When bosses, customers, or others fail to make their meaning clear, they ratchet up anxieties.

Assuming the worst from an ambiguous response

You turn in a project to your boss and when you ask what he thought of it, he gives you nothing more than a nod. Did he feel you let him down? Is he so displeased that he is deliberately holding his tongue for fear of devastating you? Does his nod signify it was just okay, far below what he expected of you?

Driven, ambitious people generally assume the worst about ambiguous responses. If there are repeated ambiguities, they turn their negative feelings inward and start creating worst-case scenarios; they begin to question their purpose of working at the company. Maybe, with all the changes that have been going on, they no longer belong there. Maybe they have overstayed their welcome and are viewed by others as over-the-hill. Ambiguity provides a fertile field for anxieties to thrive.

You have every right to expect even your largest customers and most powerful bosses to communicate with you unambiguously. Too many of us don’t.

We don’t ask for clarification because we fear what we might hear. We don’t want to discover that the nod we received was in fact a nod of disappointment. Yet it’s better to hear the truth than to allow anxieties to surface in the wake of ambiguity.

And in most instances, clarity will provide reassurance, since most people who are ambiguous don’t even realize that they’re being ambiguous. And even negative feedback can be reassuring because you know where you stand and what you need to work on.

Awareness can avoid anger and frustration

I certainly was unaware when I committed this mistake. If I had been more aware, I would have caused less frustration and anger with others around me.

One day at the end of one of my MBA classes, I began to rush out of the room, walking briskly past students to set up to teach another class. The class had gone well in my mind. The students seemed to have been highly engaged in the case, which was one of my favorites. I knew that students connected with it whenever I taught it.

As I hurried up toward the exit a student looked up at me and said, “Professor DeLong, that was really a good class and discussion.” I paused for a moment and looked at him. I think I gave him a bit of a blank stare. I didn’t respond verbally but quickly moved on out the door.

I had only 10 minutes to get to my next class and get organized to teach another 90 students. I also had to speak with a student who had had some health problems and wanted to check in with me. I also knew that there would be some parents visiting class from out of the country.

What kind of thoughts and feelings and emotions did I generate for this student who complimented me on my way out the door? I’m not sure why I didn’t say something. But given the situation, I was surprised when this student (let’s call him Bruce) set up an appointment to talk with me in my office in five days.

By the time we met, I had noticed that Bruce hadn’t participated in any of the classes after the incident. At our meeting I asked Bruce how it was going and tried to make small talk before we moved on to his agenda for meeting.

Bruce began the conversation by asking me how he was doing in class and whether I valued his comments. I told him he was doing fine so far at the midway point of the class. He asked whether there was something he did that put me off or angered me. I wondered why he was asking.

He then played back to me the incident that had occurred at the end of class just five days earlier. He said after I walked out he began to think that there must have been something wrong with what he had said. Perhaps I didn’t hear him. Perhaps I thought I was too important (he mentioned this only later in our relationship) to respond. He began to dwell on the comment he had made that day in class and assumed I didn’t like it.

Article Continues Below

He then began to review his performance to date in class and wondered how he was doing. Each time he asked me one of these questions, he responded in the negative. Worry set in, and he manufactured more negative possibilities than even a poor student might produce (and he was far from a poor student). By the time Bruce and I sat down to talk, he was a nervous wreck.

Asking for clarity

I admitted that I should have handled the situation differently and told him I was in a hurry when I didn’t respond. I added that he had interpreted the interaction negatively; he had misread my response. When he realized all the things I had on my mind he was surprised. I told him that I was focused only on getting to the next class and taking care of the administrative stuff before class began again for the second class.

When I was 30 years-old I found myself at a ball game at the old Memorial Coliseum in Portland with my father. While we watched the Portland Trailblazers play the Houston Rockets, I asked him about some of his experiences balancing raising five children with his professional career. I remember asking him, “Dad, why were you often in such a bad mood during the 10 years before I headed off to college?”

He asked what I was talking about. I said, “You know, when you would come home from work you were so quiet at the dinner table. On many occasions you were curt with us. All of us thought we had done something wrong or that we were in trouble. After dinner you would head for the couch and fall asleep while reading the paper. For a long period of time during those growing-up years we thought you were mad at us.”

He replied, “Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is I was worried about the business. I was worried about meeting all the demands that I felt every day. I know on occasion I would get short with you and your brothers and sister. But in general I was pleased with all you kids. I know you had the normal challenges growing up but I wasn’t angry in general. You just misread me.”

Given our reflex to misread ambiguous communications, ask for clarity in the following ways:

  • Express your uncertainty: Tell the ambiguous communicator that you don’t understand what he means by his nod or his neutral statement. Say something like, “I’m sorry, but I can’t figure out what you’re trying to tell me by . . .”
  • Express your concern: Address the biggest fear you’re reading into the ambiguous communication. Don’t beat around the bush. Say, “Does this mean I’m in trouble?” In most instances, your fears are unfounded and when the other person demonstrates this fact, it will lessen your anxiety.

Where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re heading

By engaging fully and demanding straight talk, you increase the odds of working with a purpose. This is absolutely essential if you’re to make the courageous journey from one quadrant to the next, from doing the wrong thing well to doing the right thing poorly to doing the right thing well.

Think of purpose as a necessary vehicle for this journey. It provides power and direction when you hit rough patches. As you try new things and have to adjust how you work, it keeps you moving through the two-by-two matrix. As I’ve noted, many high need-for-achievement professionals become stuck at some point in their careers, and purpose is what prevents this from happening — or it helps you get out of your rut.

High-need-for-achievement individuals think about a lot of things — how their careers compare to others, whether they’re being rewarded fairly for their work, how close they are to reaching a career goal — but they often don’t dwell on their purpose. For some, it seems too esoteric a concept, too removed from their laser focus on achievement in the here-and-now. I would urge you, however, to think about your purpose regularly. Reflect on what it was when you started out, what it is now, and what you hope to do in the future.

Don’t worry if your purpose isn’t a grandiose statement like, “I want to make a difference in the world” (though it’s great if it is). Purpose can take an infinite variety of forms and be articulated in an equally endless number of ways. Your purpose may be to do good work for the leading company in your industry. It may be that you want to be the type of leader who grows both his people and the business. It may be that you want to feel valued and that you’re making a contribution regardless of significance.

Whatever it is, think about it often and hold it close. It will help you keep moving forward and prevent you from being derailed by the anxiety that arises during different stages of your journey.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success. Copyright 2011 Thomas J. DeLong.

Thomas J. DeLong is the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice in the Organizational Behavior area at the Harvard Business School. Before joining the Harvard Faculty, DeLong was Chief Development Officer and Managing Director of Morgan Stanley Group, Inc., where he was responsible for the firm’s human capital and focused on issues of organizational strategy and organizational change. Contact him at