Five Steps to Avoid “Death by Ambiguity”

By September 10, 2016Leadership

avoid death by ambiguityGuest Post by Jennifer Davis

When a company reorganizes, hires a new leader, or when an individual’s job responsibilities morph into a new role – a common phrase is often heard when the changes are introduced, and that is “change is hard.”

But change is also necessary – for businesses to address new competition or expand into new markets, and for individuals to grow in their career.

While it can be hard, change by itself has never killed anyone. As a species, we can deal with change and are quite adaptable. Employees might worry about changes to the organization or their work assignments, but at the end of the day, they will survive.

The contrary – not changing – has led to untold fatalities of organizations. Not expanding to new market conditions, not adapting to new laws and regulations or addressing new competitive threats have all buried businesses. Without some capacity for change, individuals can’t grow, learn something new or do something better. Organizations, too, thrive because of change, not despite it.

When Change Leads to Ambiguity

The real danger in change, I believe is it’s traveling partner: ambiguity. Without clear direction, ambiguity kills. When the new is introduced into the corporate strategy or into the task list without explanations of why the changes are needed or the new desired outcome, the death of productivity and teamwork quickly follows. Unclear of what is expected of them, employees lose motivation and confidence. Without the ability to help each other, co-workers lose their sense of team. Conflicts arise based on misunderstandings of the priorities and urgency. Employees can revert to old, outdated ways of working or dive headlong into unnecessary disruption, filling in the gaps of the strategy with their own fears and hopes. The organization’s ability to change is sabotaged by the ambiguity that accompanies it.

So, what is the antidote to ambiguity? How can we deal with the fact that there will be unknowns in our business world? How can we conquer these unknowns without losing our productivity and teamwork?

In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, author Patrick Lencioni outlines the idea of “clarity even in uncertainty.” He proposes that the role of the leader is to create clarity (in job roles, goals, priorities, plans, etc.) for their teams, even if many things are uncertain. Sure, those roles, goals, or priorities might change over time (and per my earlier point, we certainly hope they do to keep up with our ever-changing world), but in the meantime, people know what they should do and that what they do matters.

How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Ambiguity

I have learned these five steps to help our team embrace change and avoid the pitfalls of ambiguity.

1. Provide Background

While it is not always possible to disclose the details of why a teammate is no longer on a project or a new rule must be implemented, providing the team with background information, even at a high level, about why the changes are necessary and how they will help improve the situation moving forward helps employees feel informed and part of the solution.

2. Clarify New Goals and Desired Outcomes

Changes are usually made to improve the company, team or individual. Clearly outlining the anticipated improvements will motivate and empower employees, giving them the confidence that the changes will ultimately be for the better of the company, team or individual. Paint a clear picture of the new destination.

3. Provide Clear Assignments and Direction

Eliminating as much vagueness as possible will help employees follow the new direction. Pairing changes with clear direction encourages employees to embrace the changes. Managers might find that in times of change, they need to be a bit more prescriptive than they might have otherwise been.

4. Be Available

Questions and concerns will undoubtedly arise. Being available to answer questions and address concerns will help resolve ambiguity and create transparency between leadership and the team, giving employees the confidence to embrace the new direction. Stay involved to provide updates, as goals are met and plans fluctuate, to adapt to the ever-changing situation.

5. Jump in with Enthusiasm

Show the team you are adapting to the changes yourself by being flexible and nimble. Celebrate when changes have improved results and where teamwork is thriving. Have confidence that the changes will lead to new opportunities and be passionate about helping the team avoid ambiguity.

And throughout, when you are facing times of uncertainty, focus on the things that you know or can control before ambiguity has a chance to kill.

Guest Post

JDavis 010b smallJennifer Davis is the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) for the international business of Leyard and also serves as the vice president of marketing and product strategy at Planar Systems and Runco International. She is a senior executive who uses entrepreneurial skills to build high performing businesses, product lines, and go-to-market strategies. Jennifer has spoken at marketing, design and technology conferences including Digital Signage Expo, AIA Expo, and SEGD (the Society for Experiential Graphic Design). She can be found @jenniferdavis on Twitter and on LinkedIn.

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From time to time, guest writers contribute to Thin Difference. Topics include leadership, career development, creativity, and mindfulness. Our mission is to "Cross the gap and lead with a new story line," inspiring Millennial leaders.

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