Navigating ambiguity is a primary concern for any leader. When the world is changing around us at an unprecedented rate, even the best leaders may struggle to set priorities, communicate clearly, and drive the vision. Nothing splinters clarity like the urgency of our recent global pandemic, and when ambiguity goes unchecked for many months, trust in leadership will crater. In this uncertain climate, it has never been more important for businesses to build trust.
Without a clear plan, employees get confused, lose productivity, and feel less committed to the company and to their morals. In the absence of clear expectations, trust between leaders and team members inevitably breaks down. Leadership teams that don’t achieve alignment may end up executing entirely disconnected visions. This leads to more ambiguity, loss of trust, and a never-ending downward spiral.
Trust is the antidote to uncertainty. An explicit focus on building trust is the only way to successfully lead through ambiguity. Here are four ways to tackle ambiguity by actively building trust:
Share “the Why”
So often on a demanding project, communication is the first thing on the chopping block, sacrificed to the demands of speed and deadlines. Urgency serves as justification for not taking time to communicate critical information. One of the first to go tends to be “the why.” In other words, why are you making one choice over another? Why are you taking one person off of the project and leaving the team to pick up slack, for example? When people don’t understand the rationale behind their leader’s actions, trust goes out the window.
In the absence of a clear explanation, people will always gravitate toward the most negative possible interpretation. Not only will trust go down, but resentment and frustration will go up. Sharing “the why” shows you are a transparent team-player with respect for your teams and colleagues. It shows that you trust your team, and in turn, they will put greater trust in you.
Narrow Your Priorities
A major, and often unknown, cause of ambiguity is an excessive number of priorities. A priority loses all power if it is one of 10, 20, or even more. Even the most talented, dedicated employees will feel overwhelmed and burned out if they are facing priorities in the double digits! In fact, it’s usually our top performers who struggle the most with this, since they tend to be highly committed to success and intrinsically motivated. The impossibility of getting all 20 urgent things done is a powerful demotivator.
Priorities should be narrowed on two fronts: organizational and individual. Our top leaders need to narrow the organization’s overarching focus to no more than three priorities at a time, and sometimes as few as one. Communicating those three priorities, and why they are important, ensures that your team can trust that they are working on the most valuable and important tasks.
Try introducing a practice of “Difference Making Actions” (DMAs) into your company culture to help combat ambiguity and build trust in the process. A DMA is the one action, if taken today, that will have the biggest impact on current individual or organizational priorities. Everyone should be encouraged to identify a single DMA every day, first thing in the morning, and focus on it until completion.
How often you communicate is as important as what information you choose to share. In fact, in one global survey, it was calculated that people need to hear information three to five times before they believe it. Tackling ambiguity requires more than one memo or boardroom presentation, no matter how beautiful your slide deck is. Remind folks of priorities, mission, and vision frequently to keep them top of mind.
Consistency has always been essential to trust, and consistency in communication is no exception. The folks you work with need to hear consistent messages over and over in order to gain trust. There is no leader less trustworthy than one whose strategy, plans, and priorities change on a whim, leaving his/her followers confused about their collective goal.
Celebrate Wins Along the Way
Ambiguity simply cannot exist in the presence of a strong, positive feedback loop. Be on the lookout for successes and wins as you seek greater clarity. Make a point to call these out publicly and celebrate them! The person or people responsible will feel acknowledged and valued. Others will notice they work at a company that truly values its people. And when people know what success looks like, it will help to inform everyone’s daily priorities. Celebrating what works not only makes people feel appreciated, it also gives them valuable information about what they can be contributing as they work toward the company’s top objectives.