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TCPI News Vol. 2, No. 3

July 12, 2002

In this issue:

  1. Leadership in the Age of Ambiguity
  2. Who Do You Trust?
  3. Taking Action in Uncertain Times

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1.     Leadership in the Age of Ambiguity

When historians of the future try to encapsulate this time we live in with a label, it won’t be easy. What are some of the candidates? The Age of Technology comes to mind, as does The Age of Dispersion, The Age of Prozac, and The Age of Urban Sprawl. However my vote goes to The Age of Ambiguity. It sort of captures it all, doesn’t it? We live in an ambiguous time. Technically we are at peace with the world, but engaged in the most insidious war in history. Business is supposed to be "recovering," but the market keeps sliding in the tank, and no one I know can find a job that pays a living wage. Corporate balance sheets exhibit the fantasy and ephemera of literature. We spend much of our time speaking to disembodied voices on answering machines leaving messages for people who will never call back.

Ambiguity is a condition. It creates a state of mind that results in anxiety and paralysis. Denied information and constructive outlets for their fears, people turn to informal networks, rumor becomes exacerbated and sites like develop credence as an information source. The quest for information, for direction, for leadership is the primary concern of many of today’s workers. And where is the leadership? I’m not talking about the rhetoric passed down from on high that creates more ambiguity than it erases. "We will focus on our customers." Oh? I thought we were doing that already. How about, "To each according to his needs." We know how well that worked when Karl Marx pronounced it. I’m talking about the manager on the front line; the one most likely to make a difference in both the work life of the individual and the overall success of the company in ambiguous times.

To be successful as a leader, managers must be self-monitoring. Self-monitoring refers to a person’s abilities to monitor both social cues and their own actions in a given situation. High self-monitors are sensitive to contextual cues, are socially perceptive, and are able to respond flexibly according to what seems needed at any given time. Above all, they keep the lines of communication open, even when they don’t have answers. For those who would manage, I offer this construct. I call it the three "C’s."

Being consistent is not just a matter of doing the same things over and over. Consistency begins with developing a common vision that organizational members can understand and adhere to. It is a point of view about what the organization does and the manner in which business is conducted that underlies and influences all of the activities of organizational members. A climate of consistency provides clear direction and priorities, clarifies roles and responsibilities, responds to a set of core values that relate to all aspects of doing business, and remains relatively stable regardless of other changes occurring in the organizational system.

The nature of modern organizations requires a leadership approach that depends more on influence than on giving orders. A major factor in the amount of influence a manager exerts within his or her organization and beyond is the recognition of the manager’s commitment to particular issues and points of view. Successful leaders command attention. They demonstrate an eagerness to present their points of view. They are firm and direct when stating expectations or confronting issues or ideas that run contrary to their established thinking. Commitment is also demonstrated by the rapidity of the response to issues. Effective managers address concerns as soon as possible. Delaying response, even for the best of reasons, can often be interpreted as a lack of commitment and adds to the climate of ambiguity.

Today’s environment demands that leaders make decisions that involve risk and take a stand in the face of ambiguity or conflict. Successful leaders confront problems directly and take action based on what they believe is right. As a result, they win the respect and commitment of others by standing up for what they believe and making the tough decisions. They also stand behind their people who take risks and make difficult decisions. Taking risks in any situation requires conviction, if a particular action is going against the mainstream or is not widely accepted. And yet it is often the willingness of an individual to take risks that stands out most when he or she is being evaluated as a leader.

The point is, if the managers are standing around waiting for clear direction from the top that never comes, we can’t blame the workers for doing the same.

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2.   Who Do You Trust?

As a nation we are looking for something concrete to hold onto. Daily we are faced with new threats. The latest corporate goliath to fall is Worldcom. Martha Stewart, the arbiter of taste in the American home, is under investigation for possible insider trading. The church is in crisis and participation in organized religion is falling off. At the time of writing this article, the argument rages over whether or not the Pledge of Allegiance is constitutional.

The Gallup Organization recently conducted its annual survey on Confidence in American Institutions. Out of 16 institutions surveyed, the top five institutions that Americans have the most confidence in today in order of confidence level are: 1) the military 79%; 2) the Police 59%; 3) the Presidency 58%; 4) the Supreme Court 50%; and 5) Banks 47%. The military had a confidence boost of 13 points since its 1998 64% rating, and the Presidency is up 16 points since 2000.

But what of the institutions that have sustained us in the past? Those that served as foundations for our values and economic security? There has been a 10% drop in our confidence in big business since 1998. The church or organized religion, which used to lead the list of greatest institutional confidence in the 1970s, is down from 59% in 1998 to 45% in 2002. The institutions we are having the least confidence in today are: 1) the criminal justice system 27%; 2) organized labor 26%; 3) big business 20%; 4) Wall Street 19%; and HMOs 13%. (See a video clip on the poll findings at

As HRD, Trainers, and OD professionals, we probably can’t do a lot about church, Wall Street, or the criminal justice system. But we may be able to have some positive impact on the companies we work or consult for.

It is clear that the only constant today is change. Society is undergoing a major paradigm shift in the what we stand for as a nation and what goals are really important. In fact, more people than ever are taking time away from their careers, education, and lives in order to figure this out. American Demographics (June 2002) reports that "Driven by a multitude of factors – from layoffs to burnout to the lingering effects of Sept. 11 – the idea of taking time out is seducing a significant percentage of Americans." It further reports that the number of people who are out of work, but are not actively pursuing employment because they believe there are no jobs available has risen 28% over the last year. (See:

While our confidence in big business is weighing in at only 20%, some companies are managing to do it right in tough times. Fortune’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For says that companies make the grade by finding "creative ways to keep employees satisfied, and to treat them with respect and dignity." (See the list at In many cases this meant avoiding layoffs at all costs. Others have found that providing leaves of absences at reduced pay for a period of time was one way to retain workers’ trust. Sabbatical opportunities are up this year, as are companies that are considering adding them to benefits policies (See American Demographics above).

We are looking for strong leadership in fear-filled times. Whether that leadership comes from traditional institutions, the military, regulatory commissions, law enforcement, or from taking charge of our own careers, remains to be seen.

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Learn More

Learn more about Gottlieb and Conkling's book, Managing the Workplace Survivors: Organizational Downsizing and the Commitment Gap.

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3.  Taking Action in Uncertain Times

Ambiguity does not have to be a complete deterrent to action. For many, logic seems to dictate that developing strategy is pointless because there are few clear signals coming from the top of organizations, and, if there are any, they will probably change tomorrow. "Wrong," says Ian Wylie, in his article on Royal Dutch/Shell’s approach to strategic development in an uncertain economy (Fast Company, July 2002). He contends that the true role of strategy is to define the future worth creating, to prepare for that future, and to make it happen. He says, "The present may be murky; the future may be up for grabs. But strategy that separates what’s inevitable from what’s unknowable is the essence of the game."

At Royal Dutch/Shell the game is scenario planning. Under executive Pierre Wack, strategists are using storytelling to get a handle on the future. "Scenarios are carefully crafted tales that link certainties and uncertainties about the future to the decisions that must be made today."

Roger Rainbow of Shell’s scenario team, came up with TINA: "There Is No Alternative." TINA is an ultimatum. It forces teams to manage challenges by dramatizing situations, which in turn leads to an emotional stake in the solution. Rainbow says that "In a world of uncertainty, scenarios provide focus on things you can’t duck." (

Too many managers are stymied in their desire to take action because they are waiting for directions from above. If your internal or external role involves coaching or other frequent interaction with line managers, you need to carry the message that to be perceived as effective, a manager needs to strike a balance between commitment and risk. Try this three step approach to unlocking manager initiative:

  1. Ask the manager to develop (alone or with his or her staff) three potential scenarios for the future based on what is currently known (e.g. market conditions, competition, general economy, etc.).
  2. Then have the manager consider how each of the three scenarios (if each came true) would affect his or her department.
  3. Finally, ask what actions would need to be taken in each instance.

Most often, the actions that would need to be taken are similar or exactly the same regardless of what the future holds. So, are managers looking for direction or actually seeking permission? There are always significant actions that can positively impact an organization’s short and long-term success . . .despite the ambiguity.

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