Working Better Together - March 2023

Working Better Together - March 2023

The Impact of Uncertainty

Last month, I mentioned Urgency, the pressure to perform now, and how that can negatively affect performance.  Urgency evil twin is uncertainty.  Uncertainty can come from many places, but the single most common source I see in teams is the uncertainty that comes from not having clear expectations. Taking a beat to make sure expectations are clear is harder than it sounds.  A leader I coached, once, enthusiastically declared, "We need a strategic plan!"  Everyone nodded.  I paused the meeting and asked each person, "What strategic mean to you?  Please be precise."  All seven people had different definitions.  In short, in one quick, passionate sentence, the leader had set seven different expectations.  Why would competent professional adults knowingly not ask for clarification?

Because most professionals hate to learn in front of others.  It takes tremendous self-confidence to publicly admit you don't know something, especially in front of your peers.  Uncertainty threatens our sense of confidence and our sense of competence. Motivated professionals want to be seen as trustworthy and dependable.  They hope to project to their peers, their manager, and themselves, "I know what to do and how to do it."  However, uncertainty threatens this self-image, and often triggers one of two counterproductive responses as a result.  People can become reactive, which managers experience as resistance.  At least reactivity feels like a problem, making it easier to identify. Unfortunately, it is not all that common.  The most common (and insidious) response to uncertainty is what Harvard Professor Amy Edmundson called Impression Management.  Impression management is a strategy for deflecting shame before it starts.  It is also a strategy we all learned in high school.

Impression Management manifests in four ways, to reduce four modes of shame. First, If you don't want to look ignorant, you do not ask questions.  Second, if you do not want to look incompetent, never get caught making a mistake.  Third, if you do not want to look intrusive, do not offer ideas.  Finally, if you do not want to be seen as negative, do not critique the status quo.  Taken collectively, these look like polite disengagement.  No one disagrees.  No one rocks the boat.  No one learns.  The team struggles to perform.

Because Impression Management manifests as passive behaviors, it is easily overlooked.  You can find yourself "driving a meeting" (like my friend who demanded a strategic plan), believing you are communicating effectively because everyone is nodding in apparent agreement, but not saying anything.  If you find yourself in that situation, the leadership work you need to do might be very different from the work you are talking to your team about.