The Ambiguity Factor

by Jennifer Miller on December 3, 2009

in Communication, Leadership

When was the last time you heard an employee say “Wow, the implementation of that new program (system/process/idea) was smooth!” My guess is you’ve rarely (perhaps never?) heard that.  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. 

Here’s another reason that gets buried underneath the more observable causes:  human beings’ reaction to change.  Many people trot out the old saw “people fear change”, yet so few rarely factor that aspect into their 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 download via YouTube 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.  So here’s what really happened:

The rumor mill kicks into action. In hallway conversations and via snippets of emails, texting and (gasp!) Twitter or Facebook, 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 boy, 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!”

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.  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.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Krupa December 8, 2009 at 12:06 am

Great post. I am totally in agreement. However, as someone who has had to craft and communicate the plan (over and over and over), I do wish employees would read the communications and proactively discuss any issues with the plan instead of having to beat them over the head with communications about the plan. Rant over, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Jennifer December 8, 2009 at 6:50 am


No worries about the rant. It’s based in frustration, and I completely get where you’re coming from. It would be nice if it were more of a two-way street, wouldn’t it? It sounds like you have held up your end of the communication bargain. Employees do need to take ownership in the communication process. Hmmm…maybe yet another blog idea?

Thanks for stopping by!

Monica Diaz December 8, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Communication is a two way street. Or, in this case, a many way road! You are so right the message need not only be repeated, but good listening needs to go on, feedback. The real issue is not what you SAID, its what they HEARD! So, it helps to say it often and in different ways, but also to have an openning for questions to come to YOU, for people to explore their reactions and worries regarding “the plan”. Thanks for a thoughtful post. We need to get real instead of righteous as leaders!

Jennifer December 8, 2009 at 1:43 pm


Yes! “Real not righteous” as leaders. Very quotable, my friend.

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