(Photo Courtesy of <a href=http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Gray_paper_bag_with_sad_smiley_over_head.jpg>Saibo

Ah yes, fuzziness and lack of clarity – a subtle yet deadly dysfunction that is all too common with senior management. Whether it’s working for an organization without a clear strategy to working for a senior leader that expects you to be a mind-reader, a lack of clarity from senior management is a killer. It kills morale, productivity, alignment and focus. It breeds anxiety, silos, rumors, frustration and distrust. Before we dive into the most common versions of this dysfunction, consider these few guiding principles on the importance of clarity at work:

Principle #1 – Clarifying expectations is the job of managers and leaders (who, what, when, where, why and how).

Principle #2 – If done well, clarifying expectations up front (from vision to individual performance) can eliminate over 50% of all workplace dysfunctions (and home dysfunctions for that matter).

Principle #3 – In absence of communication, people ALWAYS assume the worst.

The Most Common Forms of Sr. Management “Fuzziness” Today

The following are the most common forms of this senior management dysfunction. If you work for a senior manager that does any or all of the following, take note. A prescription will soon follow. And if you are the senior leader, pay particularly close attention to what each of these dysfunctions costs you and the organization.

NO CLEAR STRATEGY – Don’t be fooled. An unusually high percentage of organizations today don’t actually have a clearly articulated strategy. Instead of a clearly formulated strategy that provides clarity to all the members of the organization, what we more commonly see is either a series of corporate buzz words thrown together (Ex: “Our strategy is to be the industry leader in service, excellence and quality by 2020”) or a consistent delay by senior management in providing an overarching strategy (Ex: “We have been working diligently over the last 6 months to finalize our strategy. Trust me, it’s coming” – no it isn’t).

COST: The cost of this dysfunction is significant. Members of the organization assume two things, first there isn’t a strategy and second, senior management is largely incompetent. As a result, thousands of little competing strategies pop up as mid-level managers attempt to fill the void left by senior management.

CULTURE… WHAT CULTURE? – Setting the culture is the job of senior management. Period. What do I mean by culture? Simply put, culture is the clarification of what it means to work here and how we as members of the organization are expected to operate. Do we share our toys in the sandbox or is it every man or woman for themselves? Most senior management today is so focused on short-term metrics that they have stopped addressing these fundamentals with any kind of regularity.

COST: When this isn’t clearly communicated WEEKLY by senior management (contrary to popular belief, communicating this once at an off-site four years ago doesn’t work), competing sub-cultures form. In other words, you get the joy of working in silos that fight with each other and don’t trust other functions. In addition, without a clearly communicated culture poor performers can hide because the rules-of-the-road were never clearly communicated. Infighting and working alongside incompetent slackers that are getting paid the same as me - a party I would rather not be invited to, thank you very much.

LAS VEGAS MANAGEMENT – Great leaders communicate on day one what it is that they expect of the staff. From quality of work product to frequency of communication, they paint a clear picture of what success looks like. This allows them to manage performance more effectively and to empower their direct reports. Notice, I said “great” leaders. Today, most senior managers practice Las Vegas management. They let you gamble and guess what they expect and when you guess right, you are rewarded. When you guess wrong, you are punished.

COST: Las Vegas management creates frustration, anxiety and poor performance in any organization. It almost always results in public temper tantrums by senior management when direct reports continue to guess wrong, tarnishing senior management’s credibility as leaders. Frustrated direct reports soon opt to dust off their resumes.


“But Brandon,” you ask “this is so obvious. Why don’t senior leaders do these simple things. After all, it’s not rocket science.” I couldn’t agree more. There are two common reasons why senior management’s lack of clarity is so common today:

Fear – Deep down, a large majority of senior leaders are scared. Their industries are flipped upside down. They have no idea where to take the organization and what success should look like. As a result, they default to focusing on short-term metrics. Their pay-off for being vague is that no one can blame them for having the wrong strategy or setting the wrong expectations if they keep vague. After all, vague can be interpreted so many ways. On a side note, fear increases exponentially if senior leadership is “overly seasoned.” What do I mean by “overly seasoned?” Overly seasoned leaders are typically characterized by the leader that has been in his or her industry (and maybe that same company) his or her entire career and is just a few years away from retirement. Their industry is upside down and they are scared. They don’t want to screw anything up so they just keep quiet, hoping and praying for 2005 to return. They will be hoping and praying for a very long time.

Assumptions – You’ve heard the old saying about assuming right? When you assume something, you make an a** out of you and me. Sometimes senior leadership “fuzziness” is a product of too many assumptions. Senior managers expect direct reports to be mind-readers and simply “know what I mean.”

Your Prescription

Here’s how you treat this dysfunction: become a clarity hawk. If you are not senior management, train your ear to listen for vagueness and ask clarifying questions. Consider great clarifying questions like:

  • “What would success for the project look like?”
  • “In a perfect world, where would you want see us in 5 years as an organization?”
  • “Where should decision-making rest? When is it o.k. for me to make a decision and when do you need to be making the decision?”
  • “Describe how you want us to be working together around here.”
  • Etc…

Rx3If you are a senior leader, pay close attention to the categories listed above and remember, in absence of communication, people ALWAYS assume the worst. It is your job to fill that void. Communicate your expectations re: vision, culture and individual performance often and provide regular updates for each. Do that, I and I can promise you that you will have a high performing, nearly dysfunction-free office in no time.

Then again, drama is much more fun. Ignore everything I just said and keep things fuzzy. After all, unclear expectations make for much better reality T.V.