Managers Beware: 4 Ways to Catch the Vague Plague

Whether they’re giving instructions or giving feedback, anything less than absolute clarity kills the effectiveness of managers. Especially silence.

As management expert Kenneth H. Blanchard puts it, “Unexpressed good thoughts aren’t worth squat!”

I used to be a very vague manager. There were several reasons clarity scared me. But lacking clarity made my entire job even more scary in the long run.

In his national bestseller, The One Minute Manager, Ken Blanchard explains why clarity is so important. The secret to effective management, he says, is in learning to give “One-Minute Goals,” “One-Minute Praises,” and “One-Minute Reprimands.” All those communications must  be done clearly. Painfully clearly.

I honestly didn’t realize for a long time that I had trouble being clear. But after my own leader had me read Blanchard’s book, I stopped beating around the bush with my team members. I started giving very direct, concise, clear instructions and feedback. And the results were beyond amazing: Suddenly things started getting done. And on top of that, my new short-and-sweet management style saved me time I’d been desperately needing.

Clarity is absolutely essential to effective management. Seems fairly obvious, right? Yet of the many managers I’ve worked with and learned from, only a very few have escaped the vague plague and wielded the powerful weapon of clarity.

So why is it that we managers seem to be born with the fear of being clear? I’ve seen four big reasons:

     1. We think we’re being smart, cool, and progressive.

Seems like a silly reason, but I’ve been guilty of this. For some reason we think it’s the “progressive” or “modern” way to speak only in generalities, suggestions, and maybes. No absolutes. We have to make way for our employees’ “freedom,” or “personal opinion.” No stepping on toes, no ranking our own voice above others.

Thing is, though, there’s a reason you were chosen to be the leader. Touchy-feely simply doesn’t work in a productive workplace. That does not mean you push people around! And it does not mean you don’t let your team make decisions for itself! But when the team (or a teammate) needs to understand something, being vague, or “subtle,” is not what you’re being paid for.

     2. We are afraid of frustrating our team and being considered unfair.

As every manager knows, the position comes with lots of scrutiny by a prejudiced audience. Being in charge isn’t always fun, especially when you have to make unpopular decisions or give critical feedback. It wears on managers day by day. But there’s an easy way to escape that–at least temporarily: Don’t make decisions and don’t give honest feedback. Be vague. Or silent.

For a while this feels good–like we avoided offending our team, like they’re happy with us. But without strong and honest leadership, teams and projects fall apart–that’s why you were made a manager in the first place. Before long, as things fall apart, your team begins criticizing you anyway (you are, after all, the leader), and what’s worse, your own leaders have a reason to be frustrated with you as well.

     3. We are afraid of having to take responsibility.

If we do give very clear instruction and feedback, we are in a sense accepting responsibility for the outcome. If we say “do it this way,” and it doesn’t work, everyone can point fingers at us. So even though it’s usually not on a conscious level, there’s often a protective mechanism inside us that warns, “Don’t lead clearly or you’ll have to take the blame.”

Maybe we should take one more step back, though, and tell ourselves, “If you don’t lead clearly, you’re going to get blamed anyway.” You just have to choose between getting blamed for mistakes you’ve directed or getting blamed for getting nothing accomplished at all. In the long run, it’s pretty obvious which of those options leads you straight to a demotion.

     4. We are afraid of what comes along with success.

Clarity is a vital piece of success. And success sounds great! Right? Who wouldn’t want it? But here’s the catch: Success brings with it several new things we may not want to face. Finally succeeding may force us to admit we weren’t doing it the right way earlier on. And then it means we had better start doing it the right way all the time, because now we are expected to maintain. And while “success” sounds great, maintaining your best work is definitely not taking the path of least resistance. In fact, it’s a lot easier to just keep “struggling” and being able to blame problems outside yourself.

There’s no simple trick to beat this one. I think it’s the toughest one to deal with. And that’s why it’s also the hardest to see and admit to ourselves. Succeeding means you no longer have any excuse for failing or giving up. Succeeding gives you greater responsibility and means you will be held to a higher standard.

So watch out for those first 3 reasons you might be a vague manager. And remind yourself of their antidotes. But the biggest challenge is that 4th one. You have to decide: Do you really want to succeed?

If you do want it, be a clear leader. Speak clearly–simply, directly, and honestly. No more beating around the bush. No more mister nice guy. No more of the vague plague. Your team needs your clearest guidance.

As a leader, even of yourself, what are some ways you’ve learned the importance of clarity?

Author: Peter Elbridge

I have a passion for helping others, and that is why I write. I believe that sharing our experiences and discoveries in life is the best way to make a difference. After all, we're all in this together. (My opinions and endorsements are my own and do not represent my employer.)

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