The Sin of Breeding Uncertainty

Most of us perform much better when we know where we stand.

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You hear the expression “I’d like to know where I stand” a great deal in the workplace. Even when the economy is in good shape, there can be a high level of uncertainty among workers thanks to questionable management practices.

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Frequent reorganizations, for example, are extremely disruptive. Each is accompanied by three stages of chaos: the period of wild rumors prior to the reorganization; the reorganization itself; the unstable aftermath as people get used to the new arrangement. Shifting the chairs around can be a substitute for making tough decisions. It is often, to use an old line, a triumph of hope over experience.

Blurred lines of authority can also produce uncertainty. There have been cases of executives purposely giving overlapping assignments in order to see which of their associates emerges as the winner in the office wars. That shabby practice is less common than management simply failing to clarify who is handling what. Either way, employees may reasonably conclude that they are being poorly used.

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Hoarding information is another sin. It may be cloaked in good intentions (i.e. “We’ll tell them when everything is in order”), but too many times those reasons sound paternalistic. Unless the topic is highly personal, such as a disciplinary matter, the organization is well advised to release the information as soon as possible. Treat people like adults. They can deal with bad news.

The single greatest producer of uncertainty, however, is the supervisor who fails to level with the person who is not performing well. Not only does that employee usually sense the lack of candor, the coworkers do too, and all of the parties began to wonder if management really regards the lower standard as an acceptable one. It is not uncommon to hear people describe a boss as tough and then note, “But at least you know where you stand.” The purveyors of weasel words foster unnecessary uncertainty and do no one any good.

Michael Wade writes Execupundit.com, an eclectic combination of management advice, observations, and links. A partner with the Phoenix firm of Sanders Wade Rodarte Consulting Inc., he has advised private and public-sector organizations for more than 30 years.

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