Why dealing with ambiguity is a critical comms skill

The ability to address ambiguity strategically is something that separates communicators from communications leaders.

Dealing with ambiguity is a communications skill

In fact, the Lominger talent management system, first developed by Robert Eichinger and Michael Lombardo in 1991 based on their work at the Center for Creative Leadership, lists “dealing with ambiguity” as one of the 67 competencies that aspiring leaders can focus on developing through performance reviews, upskilling and more.

Lominger, which was acquired by management consulting firm Korn/Ferry in 2006, is still implemented in organizations across industries and regions. And for communicators looking to prepare the next generation of comms leaders, “dealing with ambiguity” should continue to be prioritized.

Lominger says that those adept at navigating ambiguity are able to effectively cope with change, shift gears with comfort and decide to act even when they don’t have the whole picture.  Employees with this skill demonstrate their leadership by not getting frustrated when a situation is up in the air andby being able to think strategically when communicating about risk even if an issue or crisis hasn’t resolved itself completely.

Does that sound like anyone you know?

Ambiguity is an opportunity to refocus on the big picture

Suffice it to say, any communicator working in a risk-averse industry must sit with ambiguity, and even those in low-drama industries will have to flex the muscle when communicating around a reorg or M&A. Several members of the Ragan community have shared stories about long slogs of uncertainty when their organization is about to be acquired and employees are feeling uneasy. Will there be layoffs? Will there be new leaders to report to?

Waiting is indeed the hardest part. But being direct and simple with your message helps. When in doubt, turn to your organization’s mission.

“It’s always important to keep the organization’s mission front and center,” one comms leader told Ragan anonymously. “Crisis and ambiguity both are major distractions, but whenever you can return to the mission (or simply keep the mission at the center of the messaging), that can be a stabilizing reminder for people who otherwise might be starting to spin off their axis.”

Communicating with simplicity and sensitivity

There have been many revelations gleaned from Ragan’s continued partnership with Microsoft during our annual Internal Communications Conference at the tech giant’s Seattle-based headquarters this past October, but one that keeps coming back springs from the company’s research into the neuroscience of employee sentiment.

Microsoft found that employees were less stressed out about bad news than they were over communications that are uncertain, and that simple language functions with a degree of intellectual sensitivity in uncertain times. “People are less stressed when they hear about bad news than when things are uncertain,” said Microsoft Chief Learning Officer Joe Wittinghill. “That old adage that what leaders do is get bad news out fast? We can show you why that’s actually true now.”

“Communicators are often asked to make bricks without straw, to communicate in the absence of key messages and in ambiguous, undefined, unresolved situations,” another comms leader said. “Simple, clear language is key. Even if the message is just to say, ‘we’ll send another update when we have more information.’

Touchpoints build trust

In such uncertain instances, another comms leader said that their firm takes an unusually candid approach. Honoring transparency as a core value means the CEO and leadership have become very comfortable saying some version of “We are aware of the situation and this is what we know, but we don’t have answers yet.”

“The key for us is a commitment to coming back with information and answers when we do have them,” the comms leader explained, offering one example during a recent M&A when the staff at the company that the leader’s firm was acquiring had many quesitons about everything from benefits and policies to possible layoffs.

“Rather than avoiding the question or making promises, our leadership clearly said ‘We don’t know yet, but we’ll give you a place to ask your questions publicly, and we will commit to answering them all (regardless of how uncomfortable),’” they continued. The firm went even further by opening a forum for employees to ask things anonymously. “Over the course of several months, the leaders diligently answered every single question as soon as they knew the way forward on the issue under inquiry.”

Employees of the acquired firm overwhelmingly said that was that this approach helped build trust. “Because they didn’t feel like leaders were ducking or avoiding,” the comms leader said. “They answered when they knew.”

Consistency is key

Aspiring communications leaders who are able to make the case for such an honest, consistent policy will not only demonstrate their ability to deal with ambiguity, but bolster their employee advocacy strategy in the process.

On the flipside, having answers and withholding them because they seem too negative will only backfire. People will eventually find out, breaking the trust you’ve previously created. Remember, employees would rather have bad news than no news at all.

It’s worth considering how the same strategy of transparency amid uncertain times can be demonstrated when things aren’t as serious or heady.

“Another key has been to apply this method in things that don’t have momentous weight, such as the date for a holiday party or the charity we are going to support this year, so the behavior is always on display – not just when things are big and scary,” the comms leader said.

By messaging stakeholders with simple, clear language at a consistent cadence, communicators are able to cultivate trust that’s ready to deploy in uncertain times. That’s what being a true leader is all about.

Justin Joffe is the editorial director at Ragan Communications. Before joining Ragan, Joffe worked as a freelance journalist and communications writer specializing in the arts and culture, media and technology, PR and ad tech beats. His writing has appeared in several publications including Vulture, Newsweek, Vice, Relix, Flaunt, and many more.


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