Ambiguity creates confusion, erodes trust in the workplace

The management culture of the first mine where I worked was to support and treat supervisors fairly. The supervisory support by the leaders of the second mine was more spotty. Let me describe one incident in particular. The shift foreman, my boss, told me in no uncertain terms that I would be held accountable if any miner got on the elevator earlier than seven minutes before the end of the shift.

It took several elevator trips to get all the miners out by quitting time, which was regulated by contract, so we had to start shortly before quitting time. Supervisors tried to curry favor with their crews by leaving the production section a few minutes early. As a result, other supervisors were pressured by their crews and the issue increased over time. When the shift foreman gave me this assignment, I suggested holding the production foremen accountable for staying on their sections until the appropriate time but was rebuffed.

I knew this situation could be conflict-laden but I steeled myself for the event. At twenty-five minutes before the hour, miners started arriving. Ten minutes elapsed and they became restless. I stood steadfast as the agitation of 70 to 80 men percolated. The men in front tried to push their way through and failed. They urged the miners behind them to help them by pushing. The crowd of miners began shoving against the entrance to the elevator waiting area. I held my position as long as I could. Three of the lead miners finally broke my grip and proceeded up the elevator.

I wrote them up for unsafe acts. They could have hurt me or their fellow miners with the shoving behavior. When I arrived at the top of the elevator I located and gave them copies of the write-up and reported the infractions to my boss.

The next night my boss informed me that the aggrieved miners and the union officers wanted to see me behind closed doors. I asked him to accompany me as a management witness and he claimed that he had “more important affairs to look after.” The group of five union officials and men tried to verbally intimidate me. I restated my position and declared that similar future behaviors would result in similar penalties. After stating my position, I walked out.

I realized with this event that what my boss said and what he meant were two different things. He said, “Do not let people load the elevator before seven minutes till quitting time.” What he meant was do your best to hold them off as long as possible.

The message and meaning were not consistent or at least required a lot of interpretation. Maybe I had too literal an interpretation. I felt betrayed by my boss. After that disaster, I had to analyze and second-guess his orders. The trust between a person and his/her supervisor is critical to smooth operation. Ambiguity creates confusion, misinterpretation, and erodes loyalty, a very dangerous situation. Leaders make sure their communication is clear and consistent. When communication doesn’t work, they talk about how interpretations should be made in the future.

R. Glenn Ray, Ph.D., is the president of RayCom Learning. To learn more about Ray’s completely revised, third printing of The Facilitative Leader: Behaviors that Enable Success, visit his Web site, or call him at 740-629-4536. Everyday Leadership appears each Wednesday on the Business page.