In last month’s article I discussed the importance of alignment. Alignment is all about creating understanding and gaining commitment. However, as a leader in organizations, it’s nearly impossible for someone to understand you and commit to taking action if you have not already created clarity in your own mind. Creating clarity is some of the hardest work we’ll ever do. Today’s workplace, marked by information overload and conflicting expectations, makes it hard to get clear about what needs to get done and how to do it.
we need time to think
The first barrier to clarity is a lack of time. Most people need to rush through their work or multitask to meet the expectations of others and the expectations they set for themselves. Decades of research show that both strategies, rushing and multitasking, result in low-quality output. When it comes to creating clarity about what we want to do, want others to do, and how it should be done, deep, critical and contemplative thinking is often necessary. We need time to think deeply. No, I’m not proposing endless navel-gazing. So often we think we can only choose from two extremes: time sucking, endless indecision, or in-the-moment, laser-like decisiveness. There is a middle way: when something is important, take extra time to get clear.
bias toward action leads to burnout
But we don’t take time to create clarity because we’re rewarded for doing things, not for thinking about them. Things get done in the world because people take action. We learn by doing, not by thinking. Our action is informed by what’s gone well, and what’s gone wrong. In the world of work, fail fast has replaced get it right the first time. When just-do-it goes too far, it creates a destructive bias toward action. Feeling good by doing something, when pausing to think or simply doing nothing would be the better choices, defines the bias toward action. The Harvard Business Review discusses the two primary problems with this bias: exhaustion and a lack of reflection. A bias toward action leads to burnout and prevents learning. Rather than giving us time to create clarity, the world of work shouts, “Do something, now!”
they’re getting it wrong because you never got it right
Perhaps the greatest barrier to creating clarity is our own illusion of competence. Research shows that we tend to overestimate our competence. North Americans do it more than other cultures. Research also shows that, when we believe something is simple and clear, we mistakenly assume that everyone else believes it’s simple and clear. If you can get it right, then shouldn’t everyone else get it right? No, they’re getting it wrong because you never got it right! Social science can describe what happens, but can seldom explain why. Why do we think we’re better than we are? No one knows, yet. But self-awareness has been shown to moderate our illusions of competence.
So, if needing more time to think, holding ourselves back from always jumping into action, and reminding ourselves that we’re probably not as smart as we think we are, will help us create clarity, what do we do about it? Try doing this:
1. Schedule “white-space” in your calendar where you turn your phone off, go for a slow walk, and just think about a problem and its possible solutions.
2. Write it down and read it out loud. Clarity is not what’s in your head, but what you communicate. Hearing what we’ve written highlights any confusion (I do it before I publish every article).
3. Take the right action, not every action. Yes, doing something can be better than doing nothing, but not always. The right answer might be to think today, and act tomorrow.
4. Get feedback. Creating a safe space for others to say they don’t understand and offer solutions is something leaders should practice every day.
5. Remember that we’re not as smart as we think we are. What’s clear to you isn’t always clear to others. What’s clear to you might also be completely wrong.