Are You Leaving Too Many Blanks?

Let’s talk this week about clarity, and dissemination of information.  If there’s one ultimate destination for communication and unity of spirit, it’s clarity.  If there’s one way to get there, it’s paying attention to what information you disseminate and how you do so.

Lack of clarity results in so many things.  It means your team don’t necessarily work with the passion and direction of people who know exactly what they’re aiming at and are passionate about getting there.  It means that the journey slows down whilst different pieces of information are weighed up in an attempt to identify the truth, and worst of all, it gives rise to one of our most human habits – filling in the blanks.  The energy and time we take filling in the blanks is energy and time away from focused forward movement.

When we don’t have enough information to give us context and at least a degree of clarity as to the immediate way forward, our brains tend to chew to fill in those blanks with possible options.  Because our ego retains its primal priority of protecting us, we generally tend to fill in the blanks with the worst possible scenario so that we can prepare ourselves.  It’s basic human nature.  We all do it.  And so do our teams, both at work and at home.  Given enough blanks to fill in and we eventually stop moving forward at all and start to go round in worried circles.

Being the leader, by definition, requires that you plot some kind of route forward – even when you don’t necessarily have all the answers.  It requires that we give our teams a degree of mental stability with which to work from – so that their brains don’t get sidetracked filling in the blanks.  It would be fabulous if we all lived in a stable environment with annual goals set, communicated and broken down into monthly and weekly allocated team responsibilities.  However, rest assured, most leaders and teams don’t have that luxury and the most you can do is communicate the next few steps towards a general agreed upon direction.

Often, the plan changes weekly, daily and sometimes, hourly.  I can understand how, as a leader, it’s easier to bury yourself in the firefighting than it is to keep your team informed.  But, let me refer you to an earlier article I wrote entitled “Are You A Leader, Or Are You Just Taking A Walk?”.  Meaning if your team are too bogged down trying to obtain clarity and a level of psychological stability, then they can easily become too stressed to follow you.

So how do we figure out what information to disseminate and how? 

Let’s use the example of a flight crew during an emergency:

When dealing with an in-flight emergency (let’s say that there’s an engine fire), the captain and copilot will deal with the immediate threat and then discuss the options available to them.  They will use language that leaves nothing to the imagination and discuss the full extent of the emergency freely.  They will then communicate with the cabin crew who are responsible for organizing the passengers.  They will use different language and package the information depending on what the cabin crew immediately need to know in order to do their jobs.  The emergency will then be communicated to the passengers using language and information designed to achieve the relevant action and maintain relative calm.

Communicating the situation to the passengers using the same language and content that the captain and copilot use with each other would be both cruel and self-defeating, considering they have neither the context nor the understanding to process the information.  Doing so would not be productive in achieving the best for the entire contingent aboard.

In this example, it’s clear that different types of language and levels of content should be used to communicate the same information to different people depending on what they are required to do with that information.  Often, what and how we communicate information is used as a weapon of manipulation, leaving blanks for the layers of our team to fill in.  Occasionally information is allowed to leak via rumour, creating even more uncertainty.  This is both cruel and unfair and can’t result in anything good.  Sometimes, leaders even communicate information that sounds important without giving thought to whether the receivers of that information have the context or perspective to correctly process it.

When you package information respectfully with the intention of keeping your team informed and clear, then you maintain steady and stable flow and most important of all, trust.

One very simple way to communicate with more clarity is for every person on your team to resolve to communicate one more level than they normally would do – especially when asking someone to do something.  So instead of just asking “Please would you X, Y, Z…?”, rather say “Please may I ask you to X, Y, Z, because A, B, C?”  (giving reasoning)

What this does is provide subtle context to every piece of information communicated and, in time, it allows the team to piece together a bigger picture and how what they add to it is important.

Clarity and trust couldn’t provide a more stable foundation from which to operate.  This week, consider how you can communicate for clarity, calm and productivity.  Watch the trust and cooperation grow within your team.

by Christen Killick

February 4th, 2019

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