Monday, December 12, 2011

Ambiguity Breeds Mediocrity

Guest post from Dave Mastovich on the importance of clear expectations:

I have a friend who leads a Human Resources Consultancy. He often uses the phrase: “Why don’t employees do what they are supposed to do?” to market his services. I have often told him that he should add “Why don’t bosses explain what they really want?” to the mix.

When it comes to getting things done with people, ambiguity breeds mediocrity. Employees and managers alike become frustrated when expectations are not met. The problem often arises because of a breakdown in communication. The more ambiguous goals and expectations are, the greater the chance for an average or worse outcome.

However, effective communication is a two way street.

In some cases, employees do not clearly understand goals and expectations and don’t take the time to clarify the situation with their boss. In other instances, employees are consciously or subconsciously comfortable with the ambiguity. They avoid clarity and are content to do what they think is necessary because when ambiguity exits, accountability is reduced or eliminated.

On the other hand, supervisors are often guilty of thinking they are on the same page as their team, when in reality they have not provided the necessary specifics to ensure success. Or they do not empower employees to think and make decisions that could improve outcomes.

Leaders need to provide clear direction and ensure clarity of expectations. They should talk openly with team members about what the outcome of the project should be, when it will be completed, and what employees should do if help is needed or when they hit a road block.

Managers should involve the employees in setting deadlines as well. Often, employees will offer a tighter deadline than the manager expected. If they ask for a later deadline, you at least gain an understanding of why they think more time is necessary and you find out sooner rather than later.

Ultimately, leaders should use a combination of communication tactics, rather than just a meeting, email or telephone call. Combining face-to-face and written correspondence gives team members the benefit of both verbal and non verbal communication, the chance to interact, and specific details in writing.

If you are the person receiving the instructions, you, too, have a responsibility to clearly define the expectations. Repeat back to the leader what you think is expected and obtain agreement on goals, expectations and action steps to be completed. Ask what you should do when you encounter a ‘bump in the road’ because you inevitably will.

Move off the path to mediocrity. Communicate clearly, reduce ambiguity and make a commitment to excellence.

David M. Mastovich, MBA is President of MASSolutions, Inc. and author of "Get Where You Want to Go: How to Achieve Personal and Professional Growth Through Marketing, Selling and Story Telling." For more information, visit


Anonymous said...

Great article. What I like most about it is how you call both leaders and those being led to take responsibility for clear communication. The leader can't expect those being led to communicate if the one at the top isn't leading by example.

John Spence said...

Absolutely fantastic! You nailed it right on the head. This is a trend I have seen in my client's companies in the past few months – lack of clear expectations from bosses to employees about standards of performance, unclear expectations about what the employees can expect from the company – and extremely troubling – unclear expectations to the customers about what they can actually expect from the business. Every single one of the situations causes great turmoil. Fantastic blog – thanks so much for these comments – I will pass them along to all of my colleagues.

Kelli Shea said...

This blog post is critically apropos for me right now- December is such a huge time for change and new direction often causing major upheaval among teams. Usually, employees scamper around trying to make heads or tails of their new roles, etc that they forget how important it is to communicate their thoughts or ideas to their managers. Leadership in turn can eliminate some of the stress of change by setting a clear direction up front.

This was right on the money-- thanks so much for posting. I'll be sharing it to my team indefinitely!

Natalie Cooper said...

I’d like to pick up on this reference: “…effective communication is a two way street. In some cases, employees do not clearly understand goals and expectations and don’t take the time to clarify the situation with their boss.”

I think one of the major causes of communication breakdown is poor managerial performance. It’s also one of the biggest threats to employee cohesion within a working environment. If managers and leaders are ruling by fear, intimidation and not creating the space to allow their employees to clarify the goals, objectives, challenge back if they spot problems, this is where problems are most likely to occur.

Communication is absolutely necessary and it is a two-way street. If more managers and leaders were to take the time to listen to their colleagues, give them the permission to air their concerns to the goals and objectives without fear of reprisal, then I bet your bottom dollar, this would eliminate the friction, tension and lead to shared understanding, unity and a clear vision that everyone buys into.

Andy Kruger said...

Central to your (correct) argument is that internal structure needs to be put into place to support this clarity and direction. Simply asking management and leadership to "be more clear and precise" often leads to merely short-term solutions, as people forget and get back to old bad habits.

By adding a real org chart, job descriptions, and creating written policies and procedures, this good intent will be given backbone and the results will be longer lasting.

Andy Kruger, MBA MSL
Author of Get the Cookie, Paco! Lessons in Everyday Leadership from my Dogs