I’m so confused by organizational confusion. I’ve been hearing from individuals and teams lately about how they’re ‘confused’ about organizational goals or strategy. It has me wondering what’s with the confusion? And is it confusion or is it something else?
I have a theory I’m working on. I’d love to hear what others think about it so please respond in the comments for this post. Here’s my theory, I’m wondering if the source of organizational confusion is pretense. For those who follow us here, have read The Communication Catalyst or listened to our podcast, OnConnection, you’ll recognize the term ‘pretense’ as one of the types of conversations on the Conversation Meter.
We define pretense as conversations where our focus is on avoiding conflict either by what we’re saying or how we’re listening. At the very lowest end of pretense, we are out right lying. And while this sounds malevolent, who among us hasn’t had a lie pop out of our mouth without our permission? Come on, we’ve all said the baby was cute, when in point of fact we did not think the baby was cute. Or said an idea was ‘great’ when we absolutely did not think that?
More commonly in our work lives, we see that pretense looks like withholding information or ‘going along to get along’. We don’t want to rock the boat. Another source of pretense can be that one person in the conversation has more authority or power and others don’t feel like they can say what’s on their mind or ask their questions.
Pretense causes lots of mischief. We say one thing in one setting but something different in another setting. We get people nodding their heads in a meeting about an idea, a request, a plan and then we leave the meeting and nothing happens. We believe a project is on track because the report is that ‘everything is great’ but people close to it know that’s not the case. I had a client who called these ‘watermelon projects’ – because so often projects are labeled red (off track), green (on track). Watermelon projects are green on the outside, red on the inside – meaning they show up on project status reports as green, but they are really not going well. I call pretense the “I-don’t-want-to-be-in-this-conversation” conversation. I’m mostly trying to figure out how to not discuss the topic at hand or say the wrong thing. The likelihood of having a valuable conversation is pretty low in pretense because generally we are not addressing the true issues at hand.
By the way, just so we don’t get too judgmental about pretense if we are in a transactional relationship, pretense may be just fine. I say often the relationship I have with the grocery store clerk is to get me out of the store as quickly as possible (let’s face it, we both want that). So when they ask “How are you?”, my response of “Fine, thank you” is sufficient for the task at hand.
Now, back to confusion. Organizational goals and strategy are often ‘presented’. Frequently this is done in large scale meetings (could be 20 or 200 people) where one person is sharing the goals or the strategy, with slides that have been carefully designed and curated, where every word or phrase has been carefully selected by a small team of executives or leaders. At the end of a glossy presentation, the presenter opens the floor for questions. Generally, that sounds something like “Any questions?” or maybe “What questions do you have?” or “Do you have feedback or input for us?” Maybe a brave soul will raise their hand. Maybe. Or maybe people will just walk out of the meeting and talk about the presentation and what’s wrong with it in small groups. Worst yet, no one thinks about it again.
And what about that brave soul who did raise their hand and asked a question? Sometimes they want more clarification; often they’ll want to provide input or feedback on a portion that really isn’t open for debate.
So that organizational confusion I was talking about? I think it’s that people haven’t been given the time or the forums to actually discuss the goals or the strategy. There hasn’t been the time to digest it and see how those goals or strategies will impact the day to day work. Confusion is sometimes a more palatable way of saying ‘I disagree’.
As leaders, we need to have teams that are able to take unsupervised, aligned action. To accomplish that, we need to create the container for teams to dive into our goals and strategies. The next time you need to share strategy or goals, a simple approach to help with ‘confusion’ is to ask different questions – instead of ‘do you have feedback’ try:
Its counter intuitive, but I think the solution to organizational confusion is asking better questions, not giving better answers. Give it a try – let us know how it worked!