• Dr. Jeff Doolittle

Dealing with Ambiguity at Work: 1 Tool You Need



An increasingly ambiguous world is impacting all of us. Effectively dealing with ambiguity is an essential life skill and a modern business imperative for employees and leaders at all levels and companies of any size. Having a reliable way to bring clarity to workplace ambiguity helps you avoid costly mistakes and improve performance. So, how do you deal with ambiguity in the workplace? This article presents the researched impacts of role ambiguity on individuals and businesses and introduces a simple yet powerful tool anyone can apply for dealing with ambiguity.


The Impacts of Not Dealing with Ambiguity


As the world changes, businesses and individuals must change too. Organizational changes increase the opportunity for role ambiguity. An important part of change management consultation is helping individuals, teams, and organizations gain clarity during change and dealing with role ambiguity created by the changes.


Role ambiguity is described as one employee's understanding of their job or organizational objectives being different from another's, leading to an unproductive workplace conflict or wasted efforts. Poor communications, unclear policies, or a general lack of workplace relationships are typical sources of role ambiguity.

Several studies have shown that role ambiguity has significant negative personal and workplace results. One study within the Big Four Public Accounting Firms demonstrated that organizational role ambiguity led to decreased performance, increased work stress, and employee turnover. In this same study, role ambiguity significantly increased anxiety and physical and psychological stress at an individual level. Even when a team has good working relationships, role ambiguity increases non-productive conflict and employee burnout.



How to Deal with Ambiguity


One simple and powerful tool for effectively dealing with role ambiguity is a RACI matrix. I have used this leadership tool at the organizational talent, team, and company-wide levels resulting in enhanced role clarity, improved workload balance, and decision making.


RACI is an acronym for responsible, accountable, consult with, and inform. Each letter represents the roles and degree of involvement for a given organizational role or task:

  • Responsible: Who is ultimately responsible for doing the task?

  • Accountable: Who is the decision-maker and accountable that the job is successfully completed?

  • Consult with: Who needs to know the details and requirements so they can provide meaningful input to the task?

  • Informed: Who needs to be kept aware of task updates?


Note: When using a RACI template in conjunction with a given change initiative, it is not intended to substitute for a robust change management plan. Instead, this tool creates additional awareness and understanding to support a given change.


Creating a RACI Matrix


In situations where conflict is associated with ambiguity, you should first consider utilizing an external facilitator. Establishing trust and clarifying expectations are essential to creating a valuable outcome.


Here are four steps to creating a RACI matrix:


Step 1: Select the team to build the RACI: As with most initiatives selecting the right team members to involve is essential to creating the most value. A critical to quality step is to be sure and engage those closest to doing the work. Additionally, you will want to include the manager and potentially the executive sponsor for the role.


Step 2: Identify the tasks associated with the target role. I recommend starting with a high-level outline, then later going back and breaking down the tasks further only as helpful. You could argue that an essential task for a knowledge worker is to turn on their computer. However, is it worthwhile to clarify who is responsible? This likely goes without saying. Getting too granular early in creating the RACI can paralyze the team and overcomplicate the work at hand.


Step 3: Identify all groups and, where appropriate/possible, the individuals corresponding to each task and RACI designation. Expect and allow different individual perspectives and then seek consensus and understanding. Likely there will be differences of opinion, and that is what you want to surface and then resolve. A common challenge for this step is when the project group has differences of opinion on what is meant by definitions such as responsible vs. accountable. The key is to write down the definitions. Then, review each task, identify the individual or group, and check the description to confirm understanding. These terms get mixed up too often. By taking the time to ensure understanding of the description, you will gain clarity.


Step 4: Walk the matrix. After you create the RACI matrix, it is helpful to have those involved simulate a task and test out with each responsible group that the level of their involvement is accurate and that no groups or essential details were left out that should be included. It is easy to forget tasks when building these in a meeting. It's kind of like taking a familiar route to work each day and forgetting to recall the railroad tracks or stoplights you go through.


The following is a short video that provides a good overview and example for using a RACI matrix. Although the context is for a project and not specifically dealing with role ambiguity, you will get the point.



A Mandalorian Season One RACI Matrix Example

Below is a sample RACI matrix using a few of the key Mandalorian season one episode events to explain. The matrix identifies the responsibility for the key players and the three critical tasks.



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If you have organizational or leadership development needs you cannot solve independently, we're ready to partner with you to craft a solution specific to your organization's context and challenges. Getting started is as easy as visiting www.organizationaltalent.com or contacting us via email info@organizationaltalent.com.




References:


Amiruddin, A. (2019). Mediating effect of work stress on the influence of time pressure, work-family conflict, and role ambiguity on audit quality reduction behavior. International Journal of Law and Management, 61(2), 434-454. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJLMA-09-2017-0223


McCormak, N. (2013). Managing Burnout in the workplace: A guide for information professionals. Science Direct. Chandos Publishing.

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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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