Ambiguity is NOT a Leadership Value

Ambiguity, according to many dictionaries, can be defined as “any concept, idea, statement or claim whose meaning, intention or interpretation cannot be definitively resolved “, another word for ambiguity is vague.  Vagueness and lack of clarity in communication, mission and vision is nothing less than a productivity and performance killer.  In short, ambiguity does nothing more than destroy profitability while protecting ineffective leaders.  It is then understandable that Ambiguity is not a leadership value.

So, how do you overcome ambiguity?

Ambiguous leaders are often leaders lacking in the courage of conviction.  That is a polite way of saying ambiguous leaders demonstrate cowardly tendencies.   One of the greatest challenges I see in leaders and ambiguity is the tools the organization gives them to work with.  Look at business contracts, how many times are they ambiguous.  The product SHOULD be delivered, not MUST be delivered.  The product WILL CONTAIN NO LESS THAN…  The list goes on.  This lack of clear instruction confuses leaders.  The weak ones stay confused.  The good ones ask for clarity.

Microsoft is a well-known company that many would consider successful.  If you look at their education competencies, they address dealing with ambiguity this way:   Dealing with Ambiguity: Can effectively cope with change; can shift gears comfortably; can decide and act without having the total picture; can comfortably handle risk and uncertainty.  Not only is the definition ambiguous but it also doesn’t address how to deal with or correct ambiguity in any way.

I read an excuse for business ambiguity from Dan Erwin, a Blogger who writes about leadership and related topics.  He wrote “On many, many occasions, managers and leaders are caught in multiple, conflicting constraints.  Rather than maximize the achievement of any one goal, in particular, the leader winds up in a catch 22.  He’s caught in numerous conflicting situations, but has no real control over the final outcome.”

I agree with Dan; it is an excuse.  An excuse created by ineffective leadership above, conflicting unclear messages and most importantly a lack of clarity about the organizations mission and priorities.  The employees are probably equally if not more confused.  Performance and profitability may seem high, but the reality is they are nowhere near potential.

Overcoming ambiguity in the workplace can be as simple as these 5 steps:

Step 1 – Give clear and concise instructions to your employees. “Take care of this” is not clear.   You may think you are leaving the task up to the discretion of whoever you gave it to.

Step 2 – Make definitive decisions. “Perhaps we could” is another phrase that says little and gives the speaker a classic “out”.  Perhaps we could is not a yes.

Step 3 – Encourage self-confidence in employees or managers who display ambiguous tendencies.  Ambiguity can most definitely come from low confidence people.  Developing their confidence through good leadership and mentoring can help them become more confident.

Step 4 – Train your employees to think on their feet.  Well educated, and properly empowered, employees make good decisions.

Step 5 – Set clear company-wide goals and publicize them.    Don’t create loopholes through ambiguity.  Create success and ownership through clarity and decisiveness.

None of that is going to occur if leadership is weak, uncertain or engaged in activities best described as “covering their behinds.”  So while you, the leader, are developing these traits in your company, or team, or business unit, someone also has to be doing the same, FROM THE TOP DOWN.

Eliminating ambiguity takes a high-level commitment from the business.  Obtaining that, in a strong statement of commitment, is the real first step.