The Ambiguity Factor in Leadership Communication

As a leader, have you planned for the Ambiguity Factor in your leadership communication plans? When it comes to communicating about change, there are oodles of reasons why the launch of a new system goes awry— competing values, unclear objectives, unrealistic deadlines, budget constraints and so on.

From a social psychology standpoint, here’s another reason that gets buried underneath the more observable causes:  human beings’ reaction to leadership communications about a change.  Many leaders trot out the old saw “people fear change,” yet so few rarely factor that aspect into their leadership communication plans for introducing something new.

For example, let’s say that you’re a Vice President that has 250 people in your division and you need to announce a large system implementation.  First up: the project plan.  You identify key players and ensure that plan is created, with deadlines and accountabilities.  Then, you create  a communication plan.  Maybe you’ll hold kick-off meetings, or you’ll do a video town hall, or an internal video newsletter, or you’ll send an email outlining the plan.  If you have a really strong employee communication plan, you’ll probably also hold some sort of feedback session to gather input from employees.  To follow it up, you’ll enlist the support of your management team to reinforce the message via departmental meetings.

Whew!  The Plan is rolled out and employees are on board. Right? Wrong.

Here’s the deal: just because you said it, doesn’t mean they get it.  “But I communicated it several times and in several ways!” you’ll protest. Yep, you did.  But it takes awhile for these things to sink in. According to Axios HQ, less than 50% of employees feel they have enough context to do their jobs properly.

So here’s what really happened:

The rumor mill kicks into action. In hallway conversations and via snippets of emails, texting, and Slack, people talk. With each iteration of a person’s reaction to The Plan, information gets twisted and reshaped, sometimes into an unrecognizable form of the original Plan.  One of my favorite sayings is “In the absence of information, people make it up—and wow, are they creative.”   Whenever there’s a perceived information vacuum, people do indeed get creative—and, I’ve noticed—they tend to go to the extreme.  So if, for example, a change is announced in which there will be “some” new job responsibilities for X job title, it gets re-crafted into “my entire job is going to change!”

In the absence of information, people make it up. And wow, are they creative!

Notice that I said perceived information void.  It’s not that leaders fail to communicate, it’s that they underestimate the number of times they need to do so.  Call it the Ambiguity Factor— for each organizational layer an employee is removed from the decision-making, the level of ambiguity increases.

So it’s your job as a leader to connect the dots. Leaders who are at the epicenter of the decision-making are much more comfortable with The Plan because they helped shape it. As leaders communicate the plan, they need to listen for resistance and lack of clarity.  Then, they need to act quickly to clarify misperceptions and offer reassurance when necessary.  Because if they don’t, the Ambiguity Factor kicks into overdrive and employees will don their creative thinking caps and create their own perception of reality.

Updated 2023

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