Deal with Ambiguity but listen for nuance

People love bright, clear lines. And who can blame them? But that is a tactical world view. Strategy is different and it means living in a less defined world.

But twice recently, I’ve had to deal with a slightly different issue – the idea that we have to listen for nuance as an alarm. People rarely are direct and clear in their statement of issues. Nor do they take the time to write 20 page position papers to clearly articulate what they want and their priorities. Particularly if they too are busy leaders. Sure, if a system is down or something is clearly broken, there isn’t a lot of nuance. But more often people express their issues in very gentle and subtle ways. Often expressed as an offhand remark or a question. And most of us are not that good at hearing the seriousness of that nuance.

Oh sure, we hear what they say, but we treat it the same way it is expressed – as a mild or vague issue. What we need to understand is that we are hearing the tip of an iceberg people are uncomfortable with, not some tiny, offhand statement of a single issue. And if we’re good readers of people, we when hear that little bit of nuanced concern, we need to be hearing fire alarms. If your leader asks why you are doing something a certain way, that very likely is an expression of concern that you need to deal with. If a colleague makes an offhand remark about something you’re doing, you need to consider whether there is more to it than just an offhand remark. If a member of your team asks a question, it very likely is something that is really worrying them, even if it came out as an innocuous inquiry.

I’m a big fan of Patrick Lencioni and a lot of his work addresses clarity of communication and having the courage to have meaningful debates and trust your colleagues with what you really think. We need to all think about this as we try to create more bright, clear, lines. But we also need to listen and pay attention more to hear what people are telling us. We cannot assume that a gentle question is just a casual inquiry.

It may be nothing of course. Just like there may not be anything obscuring the obvious when we deal with ambiguity. Or there may be something serious that we need to pay attention to – and if we ignore it now, the eruption of the issue is going to catch us by complete surprise.