A Confused Person Confuses Everyone Else

Do you find yourself experiencing any of the following?

  • Team members or vendors coming to you with deliverables that are meaningfully different from what you asked for
  • Employees missing the “big picture,” and spending too much time on trivial things you’d mentioned in passing
  • Employees misinterpreting your curiosities or suggestions as directives
  • Being surprised by your manager’s reaction to your work, when it seemed clear to you that that’s what they were asking for
  • Trying to “read the tea leaves” when it comes to interpreting your manager

In coaching sessions we often hear versions of, “I asked her to do something, and it didn’t get done.” Often followed by, “I found out she was working on the wrong thing!” Our clients are almost always frustrated in these scenarios – “I’ve said this a million times, how do people not get it?” We also hear from executives that “their CEO is totally unreasonable” or “always changes his mind.”

More often than not, the source of this frustration is confusion rather than substantive disagreement. Three dynamics drive these scenarios:

1. We tend not to recognize our own confusion. Most of us believe we’re self-aware and almost none of us are, especially in moments of confusion. We make flippant remarks, fixate on minor details, or rush to conclusions around a course of action without recognizing our assumptions. Or perhaps we withdraw and let something slide, deciding that it’s just not worth the effort (perhaps because we don’t know how to deal with it). This can have a massive impact on culture. Because we’re not aware of our own confusion, we almost certainly aren’t aware of its impact, and in an executive position this can ripple through an org.

2. No matter how friendly a work environment may be, there are almost always power dynamics at play. However, the people with the most power rarely recognize this because they’re not subject to them. The people in an org with the authority to hire, fire, or promote typically control the context and can set off threat triggers for their teams without intending to. As a leader or people manager, it’s important to remember that what feels like a casual conversation to you may seem much higher stakes for your counterpart. A powerful person unaware of this impact is a near-guaranteed recipe for triggering threat in the people who report to them, which will create even more confusion.

3. We ignore the power of apophenia, the tendency to find connections and patterns that don’t exist. Humans are inveterate pattern seekers, so by combining the power dynamics and executive confusion behavior described above, most manager/employee relationships are a hotbed of apophenia. Apophenia is so common in part because it feels great. People love the “eureka!” moment of having distilled a meaningful picture out of chaos, and the sense that they’ve decoded what’s going on when other people couldn’t. This leads to unproductive certainties: people are sure they know what the boss is really thinking, or how things really operate in their organization’s culture. From that vantage, offhand comments become a puzzle to be decoded, rather than a mutual confusion to seek clarity around.

These disconnects are expensive, and people rarely learn from them. The result is waste: no progress and no learning while wasting time, money, and attention. Eventually, this breaks down the trust necessary for working together effectively.

In our experience of working with thousands of people on these types of problems, the optimal design here is to build a culture that drives towards clarity. In practice, this means habituating behaviors such as:

  • Looking at yourself and your own potential confusion: where are you expecting one thing, but getting something else?
  • Being skeptical about the dots you’re connecting: what evidence do you have for the assumptions you’re making? Are you sure the evidence exists, or have you filled in those blanks on your own?
  • Asking questions to get to clarity, and being willing to accept an unexpected result.

Cultures that don’t encourage these behaviors are encouraging waste instead. You as a leader can’t always be fully self-aware or cognizant of your team’s perceptions of your words. You’re human, after all! The most effective way to design for this is to accept that you won’t always be a perfect communicator. You can share this with your team, and create and model a culture that deals effectively with this reality, rewarding those who ask good questions above all else.

This week, we’re sharing a few reflection questions to help you uncover this dynamic for yourself and your teams:

  • Was there a time recently when the people around you focused on things that didn’t make sense to you?
  • Can you imagine potential signals you may have given your team that they should focus their attention on these things?

If so, ask your employees if they’ve ever spent time going down a rabbit hole based on a comment you made. Ask them to push for clarity if something you said doesn’t make sense to them. Be generous with your praise and time when they do.

Or

  • Have you ever jumped into action based on an offhand comment from your own manager or CEO?
  • Did you sync with them that this was what you should prioritize, relative to other goals?

If so, ask your manager whether the project you’re clearing your calendar for is in fact their number one priority for you, too.