“Leading and Operating in Ambiguity” – The New Skill Set for an Ever-Changing Work World

Ambiguity. We have all confronted it at some
point in our careers. Matrix organizations,
multiple bosses, dotted- and solid-line
reporting, internal and external customers,
budget cuts, and economic issues are all factors that
contribute to an ambiguous work environment. In fact,
many of my executive clients cite ambiguity as a top
source of frustration, challenges, and wasted time and
money. Surprisingly enough, it does not have to be.
Ambiguity can also bring great opportunity – for those
who see the possibilities. Our ability to manage, operate,
and lead in an ambiguous environment separates the
best from the rest on an individual and organizational
level.
I am not saying clarity is a bad thing or that we should
not strive for it. I am simply acknowledging that it is not
always possible to achieve. Get clarity when you can, but
when you cannot, choose to embrace the opportunities
ambiguity creates for you to shine.
One key to coming out on top is to see the major
benefit of ambiguity. Namely, it can serve as a forcing
function that engages the mind. If everything is always
clear-cut and provided for us, we can become lazy – on
both an individual and organizational level. But when
things are not clear, there are opportunities to forge new
territories, stake one’s claim, make suggestions, and seize
the moment. While some organizations are constantly in a
reactive mode, waiting to see how the world is changing,
The New Skill Set for an Ever-Changing Work World
by Steven Gaffney
Leading and
what the economic trends specifically dictate, and what
customers say they want, others are creating and shaping
opportunities.
Look at Apple®. They did not wait until people said
they wanted something like an iPad. Apple created it and
now others are scrambling to get in on that market – a
market Apple defined. In an ever-changing marketplace
of technology, Apple continues to create products
that generate demand. They are not tossed about by
commonly perceived limitations or paralyzed in reactive
mode awaiting clear instructions.
After all, even customers (internal customers included)
want us to suggest innovative ideas and take initiative. We
do that by uncovering hidden needs rather than simply
reacting to what customers say they need. If a customer
says they want X, we will usually give them X. Yet the value
of ambiguity is that it forces us to probe, allowing us to
find hidden needs and deliver what our customers truly
desire.
This ability to chart your own course and not be
dissuaded by common limitations can be the key to even
individual success. If I had told you ten years ago that I
was going to write a 500-page children’s book, you might
have suggested I have my head examined. After all,
children do not normally read that much, right? Yet look
at the success J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series had with
children. She looked beyond the preconceived limitations
of children’s literature and saw an opportunity. In doing
so, she pioneered the way for juvenile fantasy fiction.
Whether we are leading, managing, idea-generating,
servicing customers, or creating new business, we should
expect to do it in an often ambiguous and rapidly changing
environment. That requires proactive rather than reactive
behavior to seize the moment and take action.
One common syndrome we see in the workplace is
the “Deer in the Headlights Syndrome,” and it is one of
the most frequent complaints I hear from leaders. They
say that employees are frozen – like a deer caught in the
headlights – waiting for clear direction, rather than being
proactive with ideas, suggestions, actions, and solutions.
Books like Seth Godin’s Linchpin are now suggesting that
people who are just waiting to be told what to do are
often the most replaceable. In some industries they are
even the ones whose jobs are being outsourced overseas.
It has never been more critical to meet ambiguity head-on
and create new opportunities. The individuals who can do
so in a quick, effective manner will increasingly become
the go-to people, while the organizations that do so will
come out on top time and again.
7 Tactics and Skills to Implement in
an Ambiguous Environment
Nearly twenty years of surveying the work environment of
top governmental agencies and Fortune 500 organizations
have shown me that with the right mentality and some
key strategies, we can overcome the challenges of
ambiguity and capitalize on the opportunities it presents.
The following seven strategies can help you and your
organization embrace those opportunities.
1. Eliminate Half-Baked Ideas. An ambiguous environment
presents incredible opportunities. The way to seize
those opportunities is by suggesting quality ideas that are
well thought out. Some people mistakenly believe that
others do not want to hear their ideas. They complain
that they have tried making suggestions and their ideas
were rejected. That may be, but ideas are often rejected
because they are half-baked and the person hearing them
lacks the time to shape and invest in those ideas. So
whether or not the idea is inherently good, it is denied.
Interestingly, I have found we are often closer to
getting a “yes” than we realize. Test it out. Next time you
get a “no” to one of your ideas, ask, “What would you
need to see to change your mind?” You may find that with
a few adjustments you can get the “yes” you are looking
for. Remember, those who create ideas are often the most
valuable players, and they can thrive in ambiguous times.
2. Take the Reins. Move from seeking explicit direction
from superiors to practicing self-management. As the
great management consultant (and friend) Zemira Jones
shared with me, the more people can self-manage –
evaluate and make corrections — the more motivated and
inspired they will be. Being free from the need to wait for
constant approval allows quick and timely adjustments to
be made, resulting in a tremendous time savings.
To effectively self-manage, it is critical to verify your
roles, responsibilities, and goals. If they have not been
communicated to you, be proactive in creating them
yourself. Look around for information and data; then
create your roles, responsibilities, and goals. Confirm
all of it with those to whom you report and then move
forward on them. Do not wait for goals and direction while
opportunities pass you by. Instead, create, verify, and take
action.
We cannot necessarily control our environment, but
we can control how we respond to that environment.
Choose to see the opportunities ambiguity creates
rather than getting tied up in the challenges. Often by
responding in an effective way, we can shape and affect
the environment.
Ambiguity can also
bring great opportunity
– for those who see the
possibilities.
3. Use Influence, Not Authority. As we discussed, we
often end up operating in a matrix environment, which
means we need to do things more by persuasion than by
directing and ordering. Even if we do have the authority,
we want to stay away from exercising that authority in a
heavy-handed way. Doing so may cause others to give us
lip service and then slow roll the initiative, or resist us in
other passive-aggressive ways.
The ability to influence others in an honest, nonmanipulative,
and effective manner is a crucial skill set
in today’s complex world. One skill for improving your
influence is building and maintaining rapport with others.
Another important skill is addressing and resolving
objections and hidden issues. If you can work on improving
those two skills, then your ability to influence will continue
to grow.
4. Get Clarity on the Non-Negotiables. Even in the
most ambiguous, unclear environment, there are
certain things that are non-negotiable – off the table.
Our ability to gain clarity on those things can save
tremendous time and resources. Nothing destroys
motivation like spending time working on something
that was actually non-negotiable from the start. Leaders
who bring clarity about negotiable vs. non-negotiable
can get extremely high returns from a workforce that
focuses their ideas and actions on the negotiables.
5. Beware of Idea Killers. Watch out for statements like
these: “We already know what they want”; “We know
better”; “We tried that before”; and “That will never
work.” Attitudes like these are idea killers, and they can
leave your organization stagnant, allowing others to pass
you by. The antidote to idea killers is to ask questions
and dig for information. Do not assume your customers
want what they have wanted in the past. Choose to probe
and uncover hidden needs. This is a key to capitalizing
on the opportunities in an ambiguous environment.
For more information on avoiding idea killers,
please read my article on the “Power of Wrong.” If
you do not have the article, please call our office.
6. Reset Expectations. I am struck by how many people
are waiting for change to stop and responsibilities
to become clear. If this is happening, hit the reboot
button and reset people’s expectations. Remind them
that things will always be changing and that much
will be unclear. For that reason, it makes sense to
always be improving (and therefore tinkering with
things). If we are not progressing, we are regressing.
The pace of change in today’s business environment
demands constant improvement on an individual and
organizational level. That means it is crucial to have the
mindset that there is no such thing as the perfect solution.
Often it is taking action that allows us to see how to make
things better. Consider this: when was the last time you
saw a plan that was executed the way it was designed?
The truth is that no matter how well thought out our
plans are, we will most likely need to make adjustments.
Encourage everyone to expect change and embrace it.
7. Keep the Floodgates Open. One leader told me
he actually likes ambiguity because it forces people
to think and communicate. In the absence of being
certain, people have to seek out others and talk
with them. For that reason, an environment that
encourages open, honest communication is a must
in order for the other strategies to work. It is the
foundation for capitalizing on ambiguity’s opportunities.
If staff is not willing to share issues and challenges
or is not empowered to freely share ideas, then
ambiguity’s opportunities cannot be seized. Open those
floodgates by rewarding honest communication and
encouraging staff to share problems and solutions.
This will enhance creativity, make room for outsidethe-
box thinking, and improve teamwork – exactly
what is needed in an ambiguous environment.
The end result will be a boost to the bottom line.
For more information on how to achieve open,
honest communication, please read my article “The
11 Most Costly Hidden Problems in the Workplace.”
If you do not have the article, please call us for a copy.
The factors that contribute to ambiguity are here to
stay, so do not allow ambiguity’s potential challenges
to blind you to its prospects. Ambiguity offers great
opportunity to flourish – to lead the way in the everchanging
marketplace. Take the initiative and use the
seven tactics to operate, excel, and lead in an ambiguous
workplace

Ambiguity. We have all confronted it at some point in our careers. Matrix organizations, multiple bosses, dotted- and solid-line reporting, internal and external customers, budget cuts, and economic issues are all factors that contribute to an ambiguous work environment. In fact, many of my executive clients cite ambiguity as a top source of frustration, challenges, and wasted time and money. Surprisingly enough, it does not have to be.

Ambiguity can also bring great opportunity – for those who see the possibilities. Our ability to manage, operate, and lead in an ambiguous environment separates the best from the rest on an individual and organizational level.

I am not saying clarity is a bad thing or that we should not strive for it. I am simply acknowledging that it is not always possible to achieve. Get clarity when you can, but when you cannot, choose to embrace the opportunities ambiguity creates for you to shine.

One key to coming out on top is to see the major benefit of ambiguity. Namely, it can serve as a forcing function that engages the mind. If everything is always clear-cut and provided for us, we can become lazy – on both an individual and organizational level. But when things are not clear, there are opportunities to forge new territories, stake one’s claim, make suggestions, and seize the moment. While some organizations are constantly in a reactive mode, waiting to see how the world is changing, what the economic trends specifically dictate, and what customers say they want, others are creating and shaping opportunities.

Look at Apple. They did not wait until people said they wanted something like an iPad. Apple created it and now others are scrambling to get in on that market – a market Apple defined. In an ever-changing marketplace of technology, Apple continues to create products that generate demand. They are not tossed about by commonly perceived limitations or paralyzed in reactive mode awaiting clear instructions.

After all, even customers (internal customers included) want us to suggest innovative ideas and take initiative. We do that by uncovering hidden needs rather than simply reacting to what customers say they need. If a customer says they want X, we will usually give them X. Yet the value of ambiguity is that it forces us to probe, allowing us to find hidden needs and deliver what our customers truly desire.

This ability to chart your own course and not be dissuaded by common limitations can be the key to even individual success. If I had told you ten years ago that I was going to write a 500-page children’s book, you might have suggested I have my head examined. After all, children do not normally read that much, right? Yet look at the success J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series had with children. She looked beyond the preconceived limitations of children’s literature and saw an opportunity. In doing so, she pioneered the way for juvenile fantasy fiction.

Whether we are leading, managing, idea-generating, servicing customers, or creating new business, we should expect to do it in an often ambiguous and rapidly changing environment. That requires proactive rather than reactive behavior to seize the moment and take action. One common syndrome we see in the workplace is  the “Deer in the Headlights Syndrome,” and it is one of the most frequent complaints I hear from leaders. They say that employees are frozen – like a deer caught in the headlights – waiting for clear direction, rather than being proactive with ideas, suggestions, actions, and solutions. Books like Seth Godin’s Linchpin are now suggesting that people who are just waiting to be told what to do are often the most replaceable. In some industries they are even the ones whose jobs are being outsourced overseas. It has never been more critical to meet ambiguity head-on and create new opportunities. The individuals who can do so in a quick, effective manner will increasingly become the go-to people, while the organizations that do so will come out on top time and again.

7 Tactics and Skills to Implement in an Ambiguous Environment

Nearly twenty years of surveying the work environment of top governmental agencies and Fortune 500 organizations have shown me that with the right mentality and some key strategies, we can overcome the challenges of ambiguity and capitalize on the opportunities it presents. The following seven strategies can help you and your organization embrace those opportunities.

1. Eliminate Half-Baked Ideas. An ambiguous environment presents incredible opportunities. The way to seize those opportunities is by suggesting quality ideas that are well thought out. Some people mistakenly believe that others do not want to hear their ideas. They complain that they have tried making suggestions and their ideas were rejected. That may be, but ideas are often rejected because they are half-baked and the person hearing them lacks the time to shape and invest in those ideas. So whether or not the idea is inherently good, it is denied.

Interestingly, I have found we are often closer to getting a “yes” than we realize. Test it out. Next time you get a “no” to one of your ideas, ask, “What would you need to see to change your mind?” You may find that with a few adjustments you can get the “yes” you are looking for. Remember, those who create ideas are often the most valuable players, and they can thrive in ambiguous times.

2. Take the Reins. Move from seeking explicit direction from superiors to practicing self-management. As the great management consultant (and friend) Zemira Jones shared with me, the more people can self-manage – evaluate and make corrections — the more motivated and inspired they will be. Being free from the need to wait for constant approval allows quick and timely adjustments to be made, resulting in a tremendous time savings.

To effectively self-manage, it is critical to verify your roles, responsibilities, and goals. If they have not been communicated to you, be proactive in creating them yourself. Look around for information and data; then create your roles, responsibilities, and goals. Confirm all of it with those to whom you report and then move forward on them. Do not wait for goals and direction while opportunities pass you by. Instead, create, verify, and take action.

We cannot necessarily control our environment, but we can control how we respond to that environment. Choose to see the opportunities ambiguity creates rather than getting tied up in the challenges. Often by responding in an effective way, we can shape and affect the environment.

3. Use Influence, Not Authority. As we discussed, we often end up operating in a matrix environment, which means we need to do things more by persuasion than by directing and ordering. Even if we do have the authority, we want to stay away from exercising that authority in a heavy-handed way. Doing so may cause others to give us lip service and then slow roll the initiative, or resist us in other passive-aggressive ways. The ability to influence others in an honest, non-manipulative, and effective manner is a crucial skill set in today’s complex world. One skill for improving your influence is building and maintaining rapport with others. Another important skill is addressing and resolving objections and hidden issues. If you can work on improving those two skills, then your ability to influence will continue to grow.

4. Get Clarity on the Non-Negotiables. Even in the most ambiguous, unclear environment, there are certain things that are non-negotiable – off the table. Our ability to gain clarity on those things can save tremendous time and resources. Nothing destroys motivation like spending time working on something that was actually non-negotiable from the start. Leaders who bring clarity about negotiable vs. non-negotiable can get extremely high returns from a workforce that focuses their ideas and actions on the negotiables.

5. Beware of Idea Killers. Watch out for statements like these: “We already know what they want”; “We know better”; “We tried that before”; and “That will never work.” Attitudes like these are idea killers, and they can leave your organization stagnant, allowing others to pass you by. The antidote to idea killers is to ask questions and dig for information. Do not assume your customers want what they have wanted in the past. Choose to probe and uncover hidden needs. This is a key to capitalizing on the opportunities in an ambiguous environment.

For more information on avoiding idea killers, please read my article on the “Power of Wrong.” If you do not have the article, please call our office.

6. Reset Expectations. I am struck by how many people are waiting for change to stop and responsibilities to become clear. If this is happening, hit the reboot button and reset people’s expectations. Remind them that things will always be changing and that much will be unclear. For that reason, it makes sense to always be improving (and therefore tinkering with things). If we are not progressing, we are regressing.

The pace of change in today’s business environment demands constant improvement on an individual and organizational level. That means it is crucial to have the mindset that there is no such thing as the perfect solution. Often it is taking action that allows us to see how to make things better. Consider this: when was the last time you saw a plan that was executed the way it was designed? The truth is that no matter how well thought out our plans are, we will most likely need to make adjustments. Encourage everyone to expect change and embrace it.

7. Keep the Floodgates Open. One leader told me he actually likes ambiguity because it forces people to think and communicate. In the absence of being certain, people have to seek out others and talk with them. For that reason, an environment that encourages open, honest communication is a must in order for the other strategies to work. It is the foundation for capitalizing on ambiguity’s opportunities.

If staff is not willing to share issues and challenges or is not empowered to freely share ideas, then ambiguity’s opportunities cannot be seized. Open those floodgates by rewarding honest communication and encouraging staff to share problems and solutions. This will enhance creativity, make room for outside-the-box thinking, and improve teamwork – exactly what is needed in an ambiguous environment. The end result will be a boost to the bottom line.

For more information on how to achieve open, honest communication, please read my article “The 11 Most Costly Hidden Problems in the Workplace.”

If you do not have the article, please call us for a copy. The factors that contribute to ambiguity are here to stay, so do not allow ambiguity’s potential challenges to blind you to its prospects. Ambiguity offers great opportunity to flourish – to lead the way in the everchanging marketplace. Take the initiative and use the seven tactics to operate, excel, and lead in an ambiguous workplace.


“The Perspective of a Lifetime” – Three Life Principles to Beware and One to Live By

ADVICE. It’s everywhere. Magazine covers. Morning news broadcasts. E-mail forwards. It seems everyone has some advice to give, and most of us must be looking for it, because self-help books continue to sell and those morning shows keep booking guests who offer life direction in perfect sound bites.

Recently I started thinking about some of the guiding life principles that I hear repeatedly – those easy-to-remember ideas that supposedly can help guide us through our daily lives and help us make decisions. I quickly realized that if we were to fully implement many of these life principles, we wouldn’t be too pleased with the results.

The trouble is that these ideas get repeated so often that we fail to think critically about them, and we miss opportunities to find a life principle that can help us safely navigate our daily lives. I want to alert you to three common life principles that could cause you harm and give you one life principle that I have found to provide sound guidance. First let’s look at three life principles you should watch out for.

PRINCIPLE 1: LIVE IN THE PRESENT

It is good to enjoy the moment, and I do live by this principle – to an extent. For instance, if I’m spending the day with family or friends, I try to focus on them rather than obsessing over business while I pretend to listen to them. In that way, living in the present is great advice. But the trouble is that this principle of living in the moment doesn’t always offer the right perspective. How can it possibly help you make effective business decisions, career decisions, financial decisions, or family decisions? Those decisions require long- term thinking. I love McDonald’s – in the moment. But afterwards McDonald’s doesn’t make me feel so good. Living in the moment is important, but it can make us shortsighted and cause us to choose the wrong things.

PRINCIPLE 2: TREAT OTHERS THE WAY YOU WANT TO BE TREATED

The Golden Rule. Hard to argue with, isn’t it? The trouble is that we are profoundly different from one another. Treating people the way you want to be treated often only works with people who are like you. Suppose you’re a meat lover and you’re having a family of vegetarians over for dinner. Should you serve them meat? Of course not ! Life demands that we develop greater flexibility than this principle suggests. The best leaders and man agers I know have expanded their capabilities and developed the muscles to adjust to other people’s styles and personalities.

PRINCIPLE 3: TREAT OTHERS THE WAY THEY WANT TO BE TREATED

This sounds kind and loving, but sometimes what people say they want is not what’s best for them. If your friend is an alcoholic and he says he wants a drink, should you give it to him? Or, to be less extreme, think about people who say they want honest feedback but in the next breath tell you that they only want feedback in a particular area or in a certain way. As I discuss in my seminars and coaching sessions, when people set conditions for honesty, it limits honesty because others will use those conditions as a reason not to be truthful. The result is missed opportunities for growth. This may be the way these people want to be treated, but that doesn’t make it the best. This assessment got me thinking about what makes a good guiding life principle. It didn’t take me long to realize that for years I’d been observing a valuable life principle in action, but simply hadn’t realized the power it could have for me.

Three of my four grandparents lived long lives, and my relationships with them taught me that people who are approaching the end of their lives often reflect on their accomplishments, their disappointments, their regrets, and all they have to be thankful for. They examine how they’ve made use of their time on this earth. So why not live as if the ninetyyear- old me is present with me to give me advice and wisdom right now? At ninety we will understand what is important in the long run, but we’ll also know the value of enjoying the present. At ninety we’ll know how to treat others, but we’ ll also understand the importance of saying what needs to be said and of making the decisions that may be unpopular but are the right thing to do. At ninety we’ll understand the grave importance of being clear on our top priorities, knowing our negotiables and non-negotiables, and choosing to spend our time with people who enhance our lives and treat us the way we deserve to be treated.

Implementing the ninety year-old principle has made a significant difference in my life. I lived for years sacrificing time with those I love as well as sacrificing my emotional presence when I was physically present. When I began asking myself what the ninety year-old me would tell me to do, I was shocked by some of my decisions and ac actions in my professional and personal life. I realized I had wasted time doing many things that had brought little, if any, lasting value. I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I have.

Try it. Think of a business or personal decision you need to make, and visualize yourself at ninety. You’re sitting in a comfortable chair with your feet up. You’re smiling and content with the decisions you have made throughout your life. Now ask yourself what the ninety-year-old you would tell you to do now.

Suppose you need to be honest with someone about their attitude, performance, or treatment of others. What guidance might the three damaging life principles offer?

Live in the moment: Unless you love confrontation, this principle may leave you thinking, “Not right now!”
Treat others the way you want to be treated: This could be helpful as long as you don’t mind conflict and aren’t upset by hearing difficult messages. Treat others the way they want to be treated: If the person isn’t open to coaching or often doesn’t want to hear what others have to say, then you’ll have to hold your tongue.

But here’s what the ninety year-old you would likely think about approaching a difficult subject with someone: Things may be uncomfortable and there may be some trouble in the short term, but in the long run, this is the right thing to do. Time deepens wounds and deepens problems, and ignoring situations often makes them worse. I know that pain in the short term can bring gain in the long term. When I look back on this, I’ll be glad I said what needed to be said.

Don’t wait until you’re ninety to gain this valuable perspective. What is the ninety year-old you advising you to do now?


11 Questions to Uncover Communication Problems

All you have to do is turn on the news to see how a lack of honest communication is affecting the workplace as well as everyday relationships we have with one another. In fact, it seems these problems are very common. Therefore, honest, effective communication is even more critical to teamwork, productivity, and profitability and an organization’s lifelong success than ever before.

People at all levels of an organization must be willing to honestly share the information, ideas, and opportunities that come up on a daily basis. This honest communication must also be done in a time-sensitive manner, because things change so quickly in today’s world. If an organization does not receive critical information in time, it can cost them millions or even billions of dollars. Why? Because problems need to be caught and resolved when they are small, and no organization can afford to miss key opportunities.

People make better decisions when they get an accurate, truthful view of problems and situations. They are more focused, proactive, and creative with their solutions, because they know what the problems are as they occur. And they have all the information they need to respond quickly and effectively.

In addition, honest communication allows organizations to attract and retain talented people, because those people feel as if they can succeed in such an honest and healthy environment. In this environment, people listen to and trust each other. They exchange valuable feedback so that goals are achieved and organizations are properly positioned to seize opportunities.

How are you and your organization advancing in the area of honest communication? Do you think there may be some areas that need improvement? Is a storm brewing? To see if you might have some hidden problems with honesty, please answer these Eleven Key Questions to Detect an Honest Communication Problem. (Although this focuses on work issues, you can easily translate it to personal or home issues as well.) If you answer no to any of these questions, an honest communication problem that could threaten you and your organization may be looming.

1. Do you always react positively when someone shares difficult information or unpopular opinions with you?

Many times we say we want honest communication, but when someone gives it to us, we become upset or defensive. We may respond with a nasty look, a raised voice, or by ignoring what has been said. These types of responses speak volumes to the messenger and discourage this person from sharing difficult information or unpopular opinions in the future. In essence, a negative response trains and conditions people not to be forthcoming. If this continues, we might one day say, “Why am I the last one to know? Why didn’t anyone tell me?” The key is to own up to the situation and create a safe environment. Then people can say what needs to be said.

2. Are you the first to hear and find out about things?

People who are afraid to say things directly to you often tell others in the organization what they truly think and feel. Unfortunately, when you finally hear this information indirectly, it is often severely distorted. Remember the game of telephone? Do you remember how distorted the message became after it had passed through several players? Distorted information thwarts our actions, because it is inaccurate. I have watched many projects and contracts become problematic, because they were built and executed based on hearsay information. Being the first to hear and directly find out facts is the key to handling things efficiently and effectively. That is why some of the best executives and managers develop ways to receive direct communication from their customers, potential customers, and all levels of their staff.

3. Do people tell you everything you need to know?

How many times have you finished a project or made a decision only to find out that people did not share key information and ideas that would have altered or changed what you did? You may have thought, If they had just said something, I might have taken care of this issue more effectively and in a fraction of the time. Key information is often there — we just need to receive it. Honest and open communication is crucial to getting a quality job done on time, within budget.

4. Do people argue, debate, and share opposing opinions in your presence?

President Lyndon Johnson said, “If nobody is arguing, only one person is thinking.” I would add, “or only one person is being honest.” It is normal and healthy to have differing opinions; the key is whether people have the freedom to share those differing opinions, tough news, and other information. If people around you never oppose your ideas and plans, they may not be saying what they are really thinking. If everyone always agrees with you, they probably do not. One reason for this dynamic is that people often suffer from The Authority Pleasing Principle — telling their leaders what they think they want to hear. Many people have been conditioned that the way to make people happy and advance in life is to do just that. Think about how our schooling may have conditioned us in that way. If we gave the teacher what he or she wanted, we were rewarded. In addition to the desire to please, employees often fear potential backlash if they share unpopular points of view. When we try to move forward and make a decision, we find that others are dragging their feet and not doing what we need them to do. In other words, they have not bought into the idea. We need to create a safe environment so people can say what they are really thinking — because receiving difficult information and feedback is essential to taking care of problems before they become huge issues.

5. Do people keep their promises to you?

People who blatantly break their promises may be breaking other promises we are unaware of. As the saying goes, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” Watch out for those who say they may not keep their word on small stuff but will keep their word on the big stuff. This is usually not the case. People who do not keep their promises or who constantly adjust their promises and still don’t deliver are probably not being upfront about something. Sometimes they know inside that they can’t deliver, but they are afraid of our reaction or they don’t want to let us down. Others feel weak or defeated when they admit they can’t accomplish something. So, they are not truthful and upfront about what is really going on. Of course, the failure to come clean only compounds the problem, and in the end everyone pays a severe price. So an undelivered promise is often a symptom of a problem that needs to be discussed and resolved.

6. Can you ask the questions that need to be asked?

People who have something to hide often don’t react well when questions are asked. By getting defensive and having a strong reaction, a person can create an environment in which others back off because they are afraid to ask questions. This enables the hiding to continue. On the flip side, we have to recognize our contribution to the problem and our history of asking questions. For example, have you asked the person questions and then used the information later to punish them — even inadvertently? If so, this may explain why the person is defensive or guarded. So if you are uneasy about asking questions, this might be an indication to further examine the situation.

7. When you ask a question, do people answer it directly?

People who are hiding things often skirt the issue, change the subject, or answer questions in global, ambiguous, or vague ways. Often they gloss over the present situation and jump to the future. In fact, some people not only don’t answer the question, they turn it around and ask you a question that distracts you. This tactic often works. For example, if you ask someone about the status of a report, they may say, “Fine. Just working hard. So, what do you have going on for the rest of the week?” How often have you walked away from discussions thinking, I don’t think they ever answered my question. Further and persistent questioning is often the key to discovering and eventually resolving the problem.

8. Do people tell you consistent things?

If you listen closely to what someone says and they are not being upfront, you will often notice inconsistencies. Not being upfront takes energy, a great memory, and lots of creative stories. Most people are unable to maintain this over time. Their inconsistencies should spur you to probe further.

9. Do the people around you display a range of emotions?

People who only show one emotion are often not telling us everything. Displaying a range of emotions is natural and normal. Have you ever had someone, like a co-worker, client, or a friend, always tell you how great things are or how wonderful you are? Although this might be nice to hear and believe, the reality is that no one is always happy and, in particular, always happy with us. We have all heard stories about someone who thought others were happy only to later discover the real truth — their co-worker was not pleased with their work, the contract was not renewed, their spouse filed for separation, or their child was having major problems in school. So seeing and hearing only one emotion from someone can be a sign of a problem that should be further explored.

10. Do people associate with others who you know to be upfront and honest?

By looking at who people surround themselves with, we can get an indication of the kind of person they truly are. The old saying, “Birds of a feather flock together,” is true. People tend to surround themselves with those who are similar. If someone who claims to be trustworthy is constantly in the company of those who are not, it begs the question: why would they choose to be around people who do not share the same values? There may be a good explanation — the associates may be relatives or long-time friends who have been there during tough times. At the very least, however, someone’s odd or questionable associates should cause you to be extremely cautious until you can fully understand the situation.

11. Are people sharing innovative and even crazy ideas and opportunities with you?

In today’s incredibly competitive work world, we must tap into the resources, ideas, and knowledge of the people around us. Research indicates that many of the greatest ideas do not come from headquarters but the front lines. Staff on the front lines are the closest to the problems, issues, and challenges. They know the way things really work. Without front-line information, feedback, and perspective, an organization can become stale, lose its competitive edge, and ultimately become extinct. This is why we need to constantly ask people for their ideas. Honest communication is not only essential to resolving issues but also in exploring new ideas and opportunities.

If these questions have exposed some problems in your organization or your personal relationships, you are now aware of the situation and can do something about it. Many individuals and organizations don’t ask the hard questions quickly enough to uncover problems before the damage is done. Many people believe it is better not to rock the boat. They just hope things will get better. Maybe it is time to rock the boat and find out what may be lurking below so that you don’t pay an even heavier price later.

Here are three suggestions that can have an immediate impact.

1. Organizations, no matter the size, must take specific and tangible actions to create a safe environment for employees to openly and honestly communicate.

2. Leaders must set the tone and the example by consistently demonstrating honest communication and being open to receive honest communication. They must show that it can be done, it is appreciated, and will be rewarded.

3. Employees need to have or need to be taught the skills and techniques to communicate honestly and effectively. People talk about being honest, but few are actually shown how to do it and produce the desired results. These skills will enable employees to effectively express concerns about thorny or complicated issues without fear of a strong reaction from the receiver.

By approaching this on several levels and from different angles, an honest communication environment can flourish and thrive. This way, people can say what they need to say and find out what they need to find out. Ideas can be freely and safely exchanged, and everyone benefits. One easy, first step is to share the Eleven Key Questions to Detect an Honest Communication Problem as a point of conversation.

If you detect honest communication problems, then iron out a plan to make a significant difference in the level of honest communication. Take action before it is too late!