How to Leverage the Benefits of Confusion
Progress requires clarity. Confusion paralyzes. Great leaders create clarity; poor leaders confuse. Worse yet, confused people pull back.
Paralyzing confusion is bad but confusion has benefits.
- Confusion precedes breakthrough. Pushing confusion away pushes progress away.
- Confusion drives everyone to seek clarity.
- Confusion opens us to outside influences and input. We seek help.
Thriving in confusion:
- Acknowledge you don’t know when you don’t. The illusion of “steady as she goes” negates the benefit of confusion.
- Don’t grab the first point of clarity. Average answers come easily – gently “reject” them. Say, “That idea sounds great what other options could we generate.” Extraordinary answers require sweat.
- Stay calm. Slow your breathing, movements, and rate of speaking; Pause.
- Demolish secrets. “Everyone should know everything they need to know to succeed,” Jon Wortmann.
- Create safe environments. “Clarity is sought by people not forced on them,” Jon Wortmann.
- Nurture candid discussions.
- Change willingly, once clarity emerges. 70% clarity is enough.
How to act on clarity:
Clarity doesn’t guarantee progress; it needs courage for fuel.
Teams bolster courage.
Sometimes you feel clear when others don’t. If you can convince your honest, talented team, then go forward with a lion’s courage. The worst that could happen is you all might be wrong.
Other times the fog clears during team meetings. In both cases, allies and advocates instill courage.
Finally, finding courage in teams requires candor and honesty. If you’re surrounded with weak yes-men, peril is near.
Note: Jon Wortmann quotes are based on our December 14, 2011 conversation. Jon is co-author of the insightful book, “The Three Commitments of Leadership.”
How do you find clarity?
How do you find courage to act on your clarity?
Want more? See: “15 Potent Ways for Fighting Confusion”
Don’t miss a single issue of Leadership Freak, subscribe today. It’s free. It’s private. It’s always practical and brief.
Go to the main page of Leadership Freak by clicking the banner at the top of this page, look in the right-hand navigation bar, enter your email and click subscribe. Your email address is always kept private. Note: if it doesn’t arrive, check your spam filter for a confirmation email.
Very well written.
Thanks Anton, Happy New Year.
I absolutely agree with you that “If you’re surrounded with weak yes-men, peril is near. It is easy to fall pray of such people. But it is hard to overcome such people. When we overcome or isolate such people, success is near. I think clarity is the state of mind. Clarity becomes more clear when we compare us with ourselves. It becomes confusion, when we try to compare every success outside. Clarity also become more clear, when we define our own success parameters. I agree that courage fuels clarity. Courage is powerful when we are real and honest. It becomes weak when we try to be superfluous, layered and unreal.
Love your focus on staying aligned with our authentic self.
I’ll add that, this works best for personal decisions. But, organizational decisions may work better in a team environment.
Thank you for adding value to the conversation,
Great post Dan.
The paralyzing confusion though, doesn’t push those entrenched in their position toward clarity. They are more likely to dig their heels in and hold on to the dysfunction and confusion, while deceiving themselves that everything in fine.
Thriving in confusion and teambuilding in these opportunities, that’s where your change agents and strategists can come alive. Excellent advice.
Hope you are still on the mend. 🙂
Wow…great observation about people getting entrenched. So true.
As you indicate, clarity and teams don’t help this type of person. I wonder what does work, if anything?
Thanks for bringing up a challenging context.
Ahhh, those who dig their entrenched feet in the shifting sands of change still lose ground and yes, denial is a long and deep river. 😉
Recognize and admire their resistance, wonder at it. Ask how well is it working and how happy are they…really? Keep asking.
Your eloquence is a delight. Thanks Doc. Well said.
That is the key, Doc. Keep asking. Push them to question and observe the results outside of their emotional investment.
Sometimes it will work well, sometimes it will not.
And yes, it is a long and painful process.
Great insights Dan. In Stop Workplace Drama, (my book) I talk about how the lack of clarity is always present in drama.
The distinction I make is this: Just because there is a lack of clarity does not mean there is drama, but…where there is drama, there is ALWAYS a lack of clarity in some area.
Your 8 suggestions for thriving in confusion are spot on.
Great seeing you again and I love your book.
I can see a progression in my own life from drama to confusion to shutting down (paralyzed). Drama is dangerous if we can’t deal with it.
Thanks for adding value,
Thanks Dan. 🙂
I like this post a lot because avoiding confusion, as you point out, is a natural tendency – we all gravitate to those places we feel confident.
I’ve developed a default response for those times when I don’t understand: start measuring. Count units, or units per hour. Measure distances. Look at data over time. Graph turnover, or complaints. When the situation starts to take shape factually, then the intangible relationships begin to become more clear as well.
Also, it’s something to do – it breaks the paralysis. And it gives something to talk about with the team.
May not be helpful for everyone, but it works for me.
What I love about your strategy is it’s tangible action focused on certainties/realities.
Moving from confusion to clarity often happens on the edges of what we know. Focusing on what we know may create enough stability for small insights to emerge.
I turn to smart colleagues I trust to reality-check my own reactions. While my first impulse is to plow ahead anyway, I know that fresh eyes will offer fresh insights. Because I work alone at home as a writer, this means I have to be bold enough to ask for help from people living far away from me, just as busy.
I’m with you. I tend to just plow forward. Perhaps like a guy refusing to ask for directions…just driving faster to get to who knows where.
I’m learning to more deeply respect the insights and experience of others and it really helps.
Yes-men, whether they’re the leaders or not, are dangerous. They are only interested in their own agendas — not what’s best for the company, or the company’s clients. If they’ve risen to the rank of ‘leader’, then there’s a lot more that’s wrong in that company than confusion.
I hadn’t thought about yes-men’s agendas. It makes perfect sense. In the end their interested in protecting themselves.
You’re making me think about the organizational-culture component where yes-men succeed. Nicely done.
How do you find clarity? I think finding clarity depends upon learning to see and hear past the visual, auditory, and emotional “noise” that surrounds so many of our day-to-day interactions. I suppose clarity is a little bit like that admonition of flight attendants “put the oxygen mask on yourself first before attempting to help others” – even if my clarity is not the SAME as yours, I can be assured that I am speaking from a place where I am secure in my thoughts/opinion. And from there it is not as threatening to hear all sides of an issue.
Love the idea that clarity includes stopping things. When confusion is added to all the other components of life…we overload unless we temporarily shut some stuff down.
Best to you,
LeadershipFreak, I am curious about # 6, create a safe environment. Can you please explain this a little more? Do you mean to avoid challenges and hostility to the options generated, or do you mean something else? I am not quite certain.
I like to leave space in my writing for readers to fill in the blanks. Sometimes I leave too much.
I was thinking that safe environments are places where people can disagree without being punished, where dissent and thinking other wise is encouraged, even rewarded.
Frankly, safe-environments are rare.
Thanks for opening this dialogue to both of you. Here is my two cents: The number one need for all human beings is safety. What I have learned about relationships is that when people do not feel safe, they shut down. In fact, this is even true in marriages.
There was a time in my own personal life where the default response from my spouse was “I don’t know.” Later, I found out that he did not feel safe to disagree with me.
This personal example taught me a lot about providing a safe place for people to express their differences without feeling threatened.
Other signs in the workplace that people do not feel safe, is when there is covering up mistakes instead of learning from them, defensiveness and withdrawal.
Obviously these behaviors and coping methods only add to the confusion and mixed messages.
It might help us if we ask ourselves how should I speak to someone who is afraid?
In addition, when I am afraid, I ask myself the question, “what I am afraid of?”
(Generally I’m afraid of their resistance, or a potential reaction I have seen from them that I want to avoid, and that because of that need for safety keeps me from being authentic.)
Some communication techniques I use are as follows.
1. I represent myself by saying something like, “I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable with what I’m going to share with you, but because I value our relationship I want to be transparent.”
2. I let the other person know up front about what I want from them. For example, “I want you to share my thoughts, and I’m asking that you listen and pause before responding.”
3. I sometimes set a boundary so that if I need it I can use it without them feeling threatened. Example: “I know this might get heated, and if it does, I’m going to stop and set up another time we can continue.”
I also use a phrase, “Are you willing to …” Example, “Are you willing to hear something that might be uncomfortable for both of us?”
This helps the other person not to be taken off guard. The value in this (not catching others off guard) is that it allows them the safety to become conscious instead of reacting to old patterning and programming.
You hit on one of the key ways to trudge through confusion. Communication. The strategies for healthy, drama-free, and “safe” communication may not entirely clear up confusion, but it can align people to go after clarity together.
As Dan noted, the air the rare for safe environs to discuss the collective emperors’ new clothes. One way has to include pre-planning (setting the stage) and ongoing communication (consistent message underneath) as Marlene noted. Presentation, presentation, presentation is key. Unconditional acceptance and positive questioning. Trust takes time and consistency.
Love the idea of setting the stage by pre-planning. Begin the process even before the process begins. Thanks Doc
How do you find clarity? If I live the life I have set out to live…I will never find clarity. That’s really all learning is, right? An attempt to answer the confusing questions, to grow to a deeper understanding of something.
I love learning, and I can always find something that confuses me.
From an organizational standpoint, not everyone is comfortable and challenged by how exciting confusion can be. In that case, communication about the process of discovering clarity is the key to motivation, encouragement and growth for the entire team.
Great food for thought…as usual!
Well said MMF!
If we have a continuous learning mindset, we may let go of what we think we know as a set of constants (illusions anyway). Valuing learning focuses our energy ahead, through murky, uncharted waters.
So true. If you are a life-long learner you come to find peace with the uncertainty and in that case, it shows that just because there is a lack of clarity does not mean there is “drama,” but everywhere there is drama you will always find a lack of clarity.
So that I don’t create “drama” out of my confusion (while I’m learning and growing) I strive to get clarity on the next right step. Sometimes the next right step is to be still and know… 🙂
Thanks for your insights Megan.
Love how you connect learning and confusion. Beautiful.
You could go as far as to say that exceptional teachers know how to create confusion.
Skillful leaders produce strategic confusion to bring out the best in others.
Strategic confusion or thoughtful confusion or planned confusion sound like oxymorons and yet….they’re not. Now planned chaos…not so sure!
Thanks for the feedback!. The best teachers are those who help their students find their way through confusion to a “clearer” place. It is not necessarily clarity, but if the right questions are posed, people arrive at discovery for themselves…those “lightbulb moments”. If done well, this results in a passion to continue this process. It is both an art and a science, and something I truly want to master. Sounds a little like wisdom to me… MMF
And hopefully they learn to love (and maybe even cherish) the journey!
On a rollercoaster,it’s the ride, not the start or the finish.
It is like the surfer, is he really trying to reach the shore?
Very useful! As far as finding clarity, one thing that’s very important is to break down the problem into managable pieces and keep people focused on the objective rather than extraneous agendas.
Great addition to the conversation, Tom.
I think watching for extraneous agendas opens the door to some interesting leadership issues that require EQ for leaders.
Thanks Dan–those agendas can definitely complicate things–when I wrote the comment I was thinking only about confusion due to ancillary issues that aren’t necessarily part of the problem but may be masquerading as important issues and taking energy away from the group. But individual team members personal agendas are another thing leaders need to be sensitive to.
I always tell my students that it’s my job to lead them …
3) out of confusion.
I encourage them to let me know where they are in that process and try hard never to express any displeasure with their sharing.
They do anguish over confusion, but it’s crucial that they experience it.
As a student asked me today: Why do I have to learn about the Aztecs? I’m going to be a professional soccer player!
I delivered a beautiful little off-the-cuff lecture culminating with:
It’s not about learning about the Aztecs: it’s about learning how to learn.
And learning on your own gets its motivation from the desire to overcome some kind of confusion — so if we want to lead people not just to organizational success but to autonomous pursuit of organizational (and personal) success, then we’ve got to turn confusion to our advantage.
Loved the post. 🙂 (Where is the “love” button?)
You can always spot wisdom because it’s simple and clear.
Into – through – and out of confusion is about as clear a statement about teaching and learning as I’ve seen.
When I’m in the class room, helping students see they don’t know (confusion) is essential to the learning experience.
Thanks for this one. I’ve been sorting through some moments of confusion myself and have found a certain peace and clarity that eventually arrives through not pushing it away, but letting it sit comfortably and provide the clarity of at least asking the right questions. Not always an easy task when we want to move quickly forward!
Take care and continued healing,
Clarity and confusion what a great dyad.
super post and awesome comments. I will simply add that what may be confusion for some may not be for others. It takes clarity to make that distinction. What confuses me provides opportunities for others. What confuses others gives me purpose. Just read an old african proverb: “if you want to go quickly go alone; if you want to go far go together.” Seems like confusion and clarity need each other to make it work. If confusion didn’t exist who would need clarity? And if there was always clarity how would we ever grow. A liitle akin to Doc’s comment regarding “ordered chaos.” Not sure I made myself clear or just confused everyone. 🙂
African proverb is excellent Al, thanks!
Pingback: Clarity From Confusion - Three Commitments of Leadership
Great post! As a teacher, I love working with people who are open to and even embrace confusion. It can be scary but that is where all of my best growth has happened!
This article is very relevant to my current personal circumstances and thought processes, and is very helpful. Thank you for validating the value of confusion and shining some light in my life. : )
You have so much wisdom and are an excellent writer. I’m hooked on your blog. It’s packed with useful information that makes me look inside myself.