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22 October 2019
The challenge of ambiguity and autonomy

This year I’m writing a book to help organisations understand how better communication can make things less chaotic. As I work with clients, and research, there are things coming up that I’ll share in quick blog posts – the ambiguity/autonomy challenge if the first one.

Anyone I work with knows that I talk a lot about the danger of ambiguity in the workplace. While some might say ‘you need to get comfortable with ambiguity in a world of change’ I will say ‘my brain says otherwise!’. We don’t do well with ambiguity, for lots of reasons but mainly because it makes it hard to predict what’s going to happen and we need to be able to do that to keep us safe.

The challenge for leaders is ensuring there is autonomy but not ambiguity. Core intrinsic motivators are autonomy, mastery and purpose. So we know that individuals need to have autonomy to be motivated. But balancing this so it’s not just a blank sheet of paper and people aren’t left in the wilderness can be tricky, especially if clarity/lack of ambiguity is a highly motivating factor for them:
  • Have the conversation and make sure you’re both leaving it clear about what the expected outcome is. Asking “What does done look like?” is one of my favourite tools from Brene Brown to combat this
  • Identify when someone has high needs of clarity. It won’t be the same for everyone but know when it’s a big trigger for some and adapt. There are different needs for different people. Clarity is always one of them – but it will be more important for some than others.
  • Follow through. Giving someone autonomy doesn’t mean stepping away completely. There should always be an element of follow up to make sure things are on track and showing that you care
  • If you’re frustrated, reset the relationship. If people are consistently not doing what you expect, have the conversation to understand why and what needs to change – are they clear on what’s needed and are you clear they have the skills needed to complete the task.

It’s easy to get lost in “I have asked them loads of times to do this and they just aren’t getting it done”. There is always a reason. The majority of people approach things with positive intent and there should never be any blame when a conversation will fix it. Take time to understand your people and it will make work a lot easier in the short and long term.

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