May 4, 2023 - Economy

Axios Finish Line — The silent killer: toxic ambiguity

Illustration of a coffee mug with the Axios logo with steam forming a thought bubble

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

One of the most overlooked, yet lethal forms of organizational rot is toxic ambiguity. Basically, killing people with fog.

Why it matters: Think of all the time wasted, relationships ruined, budgets missed and moods fouled by leaders or managers offering hazy direction.

  • Ambiguity is a silent killer — like a slow natural-gas leak. You don't realize until it's too late that you have a massive, spreading issue.

Gallup developed a workplace survey system for companies to track engagement and performance. We use it at Axios to spot pockets of emerging staff issues.

  • We often score lower than I'd like on the first question — whether "I know what is expected of me at work." This drives me nuts: How can any person at any level not know what their damn job is?
  • Turns out, this is common. Many people feel foggy, even if leaders feel they're being crystal clear.

The toxicity comes when the ambiguity is so thick others can exploit the cloudiness, or suffer from it. Here are some common manifestations to watch for:

  1. Fuzzy strategy. In an ideal world, any person under you should be able to jump out of bed at a moment's notice and recite the three most important things you're doing as a company or organization. If they can't, how can they guide others or prioritize? The only remedy for this is constant, clear repetition of what matters most.
  2. Fuzzy thinking. If you're a leader and you can't articulate those three things with precision and certainty, you're screwed. It means you didn't sharpen your own thinking before trying to sharpen the thinking of others. This is why I constantly write down what matters most so I can stress-test my own clarity.
  3. Fuzzy communications. You might have strong, concrete thoughts — but not explain them clearly. That's akin to having the perfect, delicious recipe, but not following it — and then wondering why people don't love your dish. Your ideas might be brilliant. But if you don't find strong, memorable words to express them, they will be lost.
  4. Fuzzy accountability. This one often trips me up. People don't know they own something unless explicitly told and empowered. And others don't know whom to listen to unless you make it clear who's the decider. Little gets done right without clear accountability, dictated and announced in advance.
  5. Fuzzy feedback. Few things cripple individuals, teams and companies more than foggy feedback. Many managers are afraid to be direct, and hide what they mean by over-talking or over-complimenting. This leaves people confused about their standing and what they need to do better.

💡 What you can do: If you're unsure what's expected of you, that's on you!

  • Ask your boss: "What's the No. 1 thing I'll be judged on?" or "What is Job 1 for me — the biggest specific thing I need to do for the team?"
  • If you get a foggy response, push for clarity. It's tough to crush a performance review if you don't know what'll be reviewed.

The big picture: Clarity and candor are tough but essential — especially in anxious or uncertain times.

This article originally appeared in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness. Sign up here.

Go deeper