Ambiguity is more than unsettling; it can be downright frightening. Humans have a weird attraction to fear, which explains the popularity of horror movies, extreme sports and roller coasters. Employees tend to take incomplete or unclear information and fill in gaps with the worst scenarios they can invent. Usually the truth is a lot less scary than what employees are envisioning.
Some bosses hand out tasks with incomplete directions. They may do this because they are busy and don’t take the time to think about what information employees need to complete the job. Or they may have confidence in their subordinates and assume that they know what to do. In any case, an employee who receives ambiguous instructions is left in an awkward situation. It’s hard to complete a task with incomplete information or instructions, but it may be risky to ask for guidance because the boss could become irritated or think the employee is incompetent.
The Ambiguity of Change
When big changes are impending – revisions to the employee evaluation system, changes to the pay structure or modifications to the internal structure of the company – preliminary information is usually sketchy and ambiguous. Executives often begin the rollout before they have worked out the details. This can be a smart tactic because it allows for employee input and tweaking before the system is finalized, but it is nerve-wracking because there are many “what ifs.”
An employee who brings a completed project to a boss is eager for indication of how well he did. If the boss tends to be low key or is too busy to look at the project, she may make a noncommittal remark such as, “Thanks,” or may simply nod. The employee is left wondering if that means the boss is satisfied, if she cares little about the project or if she’s holding her tongue because she’s displeased but doesn’t want to upset the employee by being overly critical. The inherent ambiguity troubles the employee because he doesn’t know if the boss thinks his work is good.
Communication is the best way to remove ambiguity and the anxiety that accompanies it. If you’re the boss, make sure your directions are clear and ask your employees if they have any questions or need further help from you. When giving information about changes, provide as much detail as you can and, if possible, bring in guest speakers, such as human resource professionals, to fill in gaps and answer questions. If you are a subordinate, ask for clarification or feedback when you come across ambiguity and don’t hesitate to express your concerns about changes in the workplace. You might identify something that management hasn’t considered - and you’ll be a hero for pointing it out.
A retired federal senior executive currently working as a management consultant and communications expert, Mary Bauer has written and edited for senior U.S. government audiences, including the White House, since 1984. She holds a Master of Arts in French from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in English, French and international relations from Aquinas College.