The time has come for us to address one of the biggest technology issues of the day: Is leaving a voicemail a waste of time?

More often than not, when I leave a voicemail message for someone, it is never listened to.

Instead the person calls me back (thankfully!) and says the same simple words, “I saw you called. What’s up?”

Frustrated me wants to say, “What’s up is that I left you a message and you should have listened to it before you called me back.”

Eliminating the Middle Step

But over the last few months, I have done the same thing to people who have left me voicemail messages. I just checked my iPhone. I have 11 voicemails that I haven’t listened to over the last month, and in all but one case – sorry, telephone solicitor – I have returned the calls without listening to the message.

My actions aren’t unique. I see and hear people do it all the time.

Here’s the thing: It’s just easier or quicker to call the person back since most of the time the next action after listening to a voicemail is that you are going to call the person back anyway. Just eliminate the middle step: the voicemail.

Technology’s Effect

Part of me wants to suggest that this trend highlights a growing need for us to connect with real, living, breathing, speaking human beings because we spend too much time staring at computer and cellphone screens, or typing messages.

Of course, the technological advancement that enables us not to listen to voicemails is the capturing of the incoming caller’s telephone number on iPhones and Droids regardless of whether you answer or not. So if you have called someone’s cellphone, they have your number and when you called.

Some corporate phone lines, especially VOIP lines, do the same thing – although my experience is that it’s not the norm yet.

From the perspective of business efficiency (imagine voicing 50 or 100 voicemail messages in a day), leaving voicemail messages seems like an inefficient, outdated practice.

By abandoning voicemail, we save time when we are making or receiving calls from people. No need to do something that no one will ever use. Right?

Different Rules for Email

Before we create a new rule, let’s look at this situation another way. What if the communication occurred over email? Who would reply to someone’s email without reading it first? No one.

By that logic then, we should listen to the voicemails before we return the call. Probably.

Still I doubt that people are going to go backward. One of the great lessons of technology is that once you move forward, there’s rarely a chance we go back to our old ways. Who’s still using an 8-track player, a Gameboy or an iPod regularly?

The real problem is that we can’t anticipate whether someone is a voicemail listener or a disregarder. If we get it wrong, we jeopardize the very communication we sought to establish by placing the call in the first place.

Potential Missed Opportunities

That’s the problem. I’d like to stop leaving voicemail messages, but I fear I might miss an opportunity.

For the time being, I guess I have to keep leaving them, knowing the vast majority of the people I am leaving for them will never listen to them.

How are you handling this situation?

Most business owners and operators typically take stock of their company’s financial at this point in the year, which for most serves as the fiscal halfway point.

For some owners the first week of July is one of two times they actually look at their numbers. Others dig deep into their numbers at this point, checking them against their forecasts and realities. They create their spreadsheets, charts and graphs. They pore over the data, looking for trends and warning signs. And they forecast their future actions.

Those details are important to the success of any business. Knowing the financials is a critical component of running any business.

Businesses have another metric that they should be watching as closely. Yet most avoid or overlook this important asset.

What about your employees? Are you taking stock of where they stand in your business?

Employees make or break a business. We can’t create goods and services without them. As our businesses grow larger, our employees become a growing face of our creation. Without them, there is no us.

I see and talk to owners who often have no real sense of their employees. They are no different than the technology, another cog in the company’s big operational machine.

These owners either aren’t looking at or have become too engrossed in their own work life to pay attention.

They don’t see the things I see at businesses all the time. They miss the employee who smirks at a colleague or customer. They don’t recognize an employee’s lack of attentiveness to little things like a piece of trash on the floor or a faulty light bulb. They don’t hear the negative talk occurring in the office or on the sales floor. They don’t know that the employees are arriving late or leaving early.

They don’t see these red flags because they don’t want to. After talking to hundreds of business owners, I know the reason they don’t look or see these issues. To see them means they have to deal with them. Many business owners are either unsure of how to or afraid to look more closely at their employees.

Better to hide their heads, they think. If I can’t see it, it cannot hurt me. Every little child will tell you that about the monster under the bed. Except the monster isn’t real.

Employees and their attitudes and interest in their workplace are real.

I can’t count the number of times a key employee has left a job suddenly and in talking to the owner a few days or weeks later, they admitted that they probably should have known. The signs were there. The employee used more sick time than usual, wasn’t demonstrating the same level of commitment or creativity as usual, or just seemed tired by the job duties.

Imagine the same business owner saying I didn’t look at my bank account for six months or a year because I didn’t know how to deal with it. Impossible.

Knowing the truth about your employees won’t just help you feel better about the company. It will fuel additional growth. Happy, engaged employees are more productive and more innovative.

I have been researching, coaching and training employers and employees on many workplace issues.

From those experiences I can offer some questions you may must ask yourself about your employees.

  1. Do your employees understand your company’s underlying mission and does it resonate with them?
  2. Are they taking care of themselves so they can perform their duties at work effectively?
  3. Are they taking on new challenges and being challenged in their work on a daily basis?
  4. Do they see a path for promotion and advancement?
  5. Do they work and play well with each other? (Extra points if they can argue passionate with one another to reach a better solution to a challenge.)
  6. Do they share the good news and the bad news with the people that need to know, including you?
  7. Have your employees documented their processes and procedures so your business will continue to operate successfully if one of them chooses to leave?
  8. Could your employees work effectively if you had to take an unplanned or extended leave?
  9. Do they feel rewarded beyond their compensation and benefits for their hard work?
  10. If they could choose where to work, would they choose to work at your company?

If you cannot say “Yes” to all 10 of these questions, then you may want to invest as much, if not more effort, on your employees as you put toward the financials.

Study after study supports the notion that employees want to work in an environment where they can contribute and feel valued for that contribution.

The changes you may need to consider for them to feel like valuable contributors don’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. Most of these areas require more thought and action than money.

The payoffs can be enormous. The financials you may be reviewing closely this week could look far greater in a few months with action to better reflect your commitment to your employees.

People who appear to hold a strong ethical line gain more trust and respect than those who have less clear ethical boundaries. For this reason alone, maintaining strong personal ethics becomes a key to successfully working with others.

People who cannot determine the difference between good and evil or right and wrong human actions are not the people we gravitate toward. Those people can be unpredictable, if not downright dangerous. On some level we know it and tend to instinctively steer away from them as much as possible. Imagine the effect of this steering away in a team environment.

In concept and discussion, ethics seem black and white. The list of things we will and won’t do is easy to create in the abstract. In reality, the difference between black and white is colored with a great deal of gray.

Further complicating these ethically challenging situations is how no signpost alert us to when we are about to cross the line. It’s not like the Mason-Dixon Line, which seems to be clearly noted on practically every north-south route between Maryland and Pennsylvania.

As a journalist, I can remember pontificating in college classes on the “obvious” ethical choice in a series of complex journalism situations. Information can’t be verified (don’t use it). Lying about who you are or what you are writing about to get access to information or people (don’t do it). Paying for information (don’t do it).

Those situations arose in my career as a reporter, editor and executive editor more than I would have imagined. Other ethical lines that seemed easy to cross because they became less clear involved using anonymous sources in important stories where no other options existed and allowing advertisers to have a greater say in our coverage decisions than best practices might suggest.

In the real world, too many times we made ethical decisions on the fly, unaware that we even were right up against the ethical line or crossing it until it was too late.

Once you cross the line, it’s hard to walk things back (a beautiful political phrase that says exactly what we want to do but struggle to accomplish).

If a line clearly defines good versus evil, then once you cross it, you can never restore your good. Right?

The drivers pushing us toward that line may be the powerful appeal of a promotion, a new opportunity or a bigger role in decision-making, not to mention a bigger paycheck. These reasons are often cited when someone moves a personal ethical line closer to evil.

For me, more often than not, I didn’t even see the line I was close to crossing. It seemed to happen long before I realize what was happening.

Once alerted to the situation, I experienced something akin to buyer’s remorse. You know the feeling: You bought that two-for-one thing that shows up on TV for $19.99 every time you stay up late. It looks cool. It’s just $19.99, plus separate shipping for each. Who wouldn’t do it? You do it and when it arrives, you immediately see the bad decision you made.

Crossing an ethical line, wide or narrow, feels the same way, but the repercussion can far exceed the hit to your checking account for that cool late-night offer.

The only answer after bad decisions on both an ethical dilemma and a foolish online purchase is to attempt to recalibrate. These questions can offer some guidance.

  • What was the ethical line you crossed?
  • Did you cross it, or was your prior understanding of the line faulty? (It happens.)
  • What was the first and subsequent actions that led to crossing the line?
  • If you didn’t see it coming, what are the signposts you can erect to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

Determining where and when the ethics actually became compromised can help to ensure that if the situation arises again (it rarely does), we might make a different choice.

No wonder we assign so much trust and respect to the people who seem to avoid stepping over the ethical line. My guess is that at our core, we wonder how they do it and we hope it rubs off on us.

Want more on ethical decisions? Listen to Episode 49 of our Serious Soft Skills Podcast, which explores in more detail the ethical implications of decisions.

If customer service describes how you are differentiate yourself or your company in the marketplace, then you waste words. Great customer service is assumed.

In the last few weeks, at least half of the business people I met talked about their great customer service.

They aren’t alone. When I have interviewed employees at companies that hired me to help with their marketing, most of them trumpeted their incredible customer service as THE thing to focus attention on. But when I asked for examples, most of the time what they described as great customer service sounded to me like doing the job, nothing more. It also sounded each time like what their competitors would tell me if asked.

If everyone’s doing it, then by definition it can’t be a differentiator.

Don’t get me wrong. Great customer service is essential to any business success. It’s as important as having a way to collect money.

It just can’t be a differentiator because, unless you have a reputation for bad service, we assume you have good service. It’s not our demand. It’s a hallmark of any successful business.

Conversely, if you have bad customer service, you will run out of customers as word of your misdeeds spreads. Lose enough customers and you are out of business. Capitalism handles this situation all too well and all too quickly.

Spotlighting customer service invites the wrong thoughts in customers’ minds. Reinforcing what we expect suggests one of two things, each of which is bad for a business. First, what you think is “great customer service” is probably good or expected customer service to us. Therefore, we question your commitment and your ability to discern vital business information.

Second, calling attention to your supposed great customer service suggests you had bad customer service at some point. We perceive the message to be that you are proud of overcoming this challenge. The problem with that suggestion is it plants the seed that customer service could fail again. Who wants to work with a company that might fail in its customer service?

More often than we want to admit, companies we expect to have great customer service let us down. On some deep, personal level, we fear this possibility each time we commit to a transaction. What if that object I bought online is a knockoff or they never ship it? What if that three-year warranty has so many caveats, hidden in all that fine print none of us ever reads before signing, that we’ll never get our money back? What if that TV ad promising the world supports a company that has no one answering the phone if you have a problem?

The best people to talk about a company’s customer service are its customers; they have instant credibility when they say a company handled things well. Most of us don’t share those stories about the companies we deal with unless the provider goes way above and beyond our expectations. Those stories help differentiate a company. But they are customer initiated and customer generated – always.

If your company is hawking its great customer service, you are really saying nothing at all.

Most meetings don’t matter. While you may dismiss this reality as “part of the job,” think about how 15% of your work time, according to consulting firm Bain & Co, is spent in those time-sucking meeting. Change needs to occur and I have an idea.

But first, we need to be clear about how bad the problem is. For most of the meetings you are called into, being there is no different than being absent, except for the fact that less air and carbon dioxide gets exchanged, fewer eyes get rolled and your doodling of that cool logo you would use if you ever get up the courage to open your own business remains in your mind, not on the notepad sitting blank in front of you.

If you are like most of us, you know as you walk into a meeting – often 3 minutes or so late because the coffee maker wouldn’t work or it took you that long to talk yourself into going because “I have to” —  that you’re about to waste valuable time. It’s time you could be fighting fires (do firefighters have meetings?) or planning or the list could go on and on.

Meetings as Punishment

One person I know scheduled weekly staff meetings (the worst of the worst) for 4 p.m. routinely, figuring that if he was going to waste an hour that the best one to waste was the last one of his work day.

Another person I know attends a Friday afternoon meeting every week, even his vacation weeks, because it’s required. Talk about punitive and counter-productive. No one’s going to bring their A game to a Friday afternoon meeting, where every debate means that much longer until the weekend.

Holding a good meeting these days is challenging. Getting the right time, the right people, the right agenda, the right tone to encourage an open exchange, and on and on. I have coached leaders and teams on these matters.

A New Approach

A few weeks ago, I shared my strategy for creating better meetings on our award-seeking podcast, The Serious Soft Skills Podcast. Compressing meetings to the bare essentials seems to encourage the most effectiveness. I’ve tried stand-up meetings, fewer meetings with longer agendas, more meetings with shorter agendas and various other techniques.

But the Rule of Fours seems to work best. My Rule of Fours suggests that whatever time you are going to devote to meetings, cut it by four. If it’s slated for one hour, then cut it to 15 minutes. If it’s a half hour, then cut it to 7½ minutes. (If it’s a 15-minute meeting, scrap it. Do one-on-one, in-person meetings instead.)

This rule, which I have shared with a few people to good results, works for several reasons. Most importantly, the Rule of Fours shows you mean business. You want to get to the core of the matters at hand. No chit chat, no long stories, no bad jokes, no grandstanding, no crazy PowerPoint presentations. This approach doesn’t even allow for time to dim the lights, which is a guarantee for a bad meeting.

Taming the Meeting Madness

Second, this rule forces you focus on one, maybe two, main topics. Too often, with the exception of a brainstorming meeting where wild ideas are encouraged, teams take on too much in one meeting. It’s all issues on the deck, when focused meetings show success.

Third, if people have booked the hour for a meeting and get out after 15 minutes, they actually might have time to work on their action items from the meeting. Too often we leave meetings frustrated and after planned, which forces us to consign any action items we had at the meeting to later. If we even document them at all.

In our hyper-competitive business climate, wasted time costs us dearly. Making meetings matter again could help you regain the advantage you are seeking against your competitors.

The World Wide Web, celebrating its 30th anniversary today, is one of the most — if not the most — powerful tools launched in the last 50 years, if not ever. The Internet helps us connect across cities, states, countries and worlds; it bridges gaps and speeds up time in good and bad ways.

But let’s face one important fact: the Internet is not a suitable replacement for face-to-face interactions. When we look someone else in the eye, we see so much more than a face.

Communicating through Skype or FaceTime or any of the other virtual communication tools the Internet spawned attempts to overcome this obstacle. But lag time and being on a screen, not to mention the ability to mute or go without video, makes us prone to distraction and impedes us from achieving the kind of results spontaneous discussion sparks. How many times have you been in a face-to-face discussion at a bar, restaurant, grocery store, sporting event and made a valuable connection? I have yet to be able to do that on the Internet because everything is categorized well, which kills any chance of serendipity.

Face-to-face doesn’t just give us someone else’s reactions, it invites them. Our eyes plead with someone else to show us what they are thinking through their face in a way I have yet to master on a video conference call. When I see your face, I can see when you bored; your eyes go elsewhere. I sense confusion because your eyes and facial expressions give it away. Armed with this valuable information, I can react and change course.

Try changing the course of the conversation in a good way after you sent an email to someone that they misinterpreted in a way you didn’t even consider possible. Apologies and restatements only can do so much.

When I am speaking to or training groups, I often talk about the power of eye contact. I demonstrate its power by playing the staring game, where I stare a person in the eye for as long as it takes for them to look away. I have never lost in probably 200 attempts. Not just because I played the game with my dog Dabney and wore him down for years, but because I am not uncomfortable in that space when you are staring intently at another person. I actually welcome it. Maybe it’s the old newspaper reporter in me that knows when that space exists, the other person is apt to fill it with something valuable.

I fear I am alone. A growing number of people seem to find this prolonged eye contact uncomfortable (even if I warn them that it’s coming).

That muscle that allows us to look inside ourselves and others while staring appears to atrophied in so many people. Or, and it scares me to admit it, they never had the chance to develop this muscle.

I was thinking about this shift while staring at my new great-niece Leah last Friday night. She was being fussy, which troubles me since I was holding her. But when I looked into her three-week-old eyes, she calmed. She liked it. I know: She can’t focus yet and she probably was catching the light off my glasses. But still. She didn’t look away. She kept that eye contact.

Few of us want or can hold that kind of attention. If anything, the Internet has hurt our attention spans. More than two decades ago, teaching a college class involved standing in the front of the room and lecturing – and perhaps drawing on the chalkboard. Today, teaching a college class is more akin to hosting a late-night talk show – introduce the topic, get feedback, shift gears to a PowerPoint, start an activity, a little more discussion, then a breakout session, followed by a hand’s-on activity, then a wrap-up. If any segment exceeds eight minutes, you’re in trouble. (At the risk of divulging my teaching trade secrets, extra points for pop culture references or making anything connect to an episode of “Friends.”)

Like most people, I use the Internet every day in important ways. I would struggle to live without it. But I know I would struggle more if I couldn’t look the people who matter to me in the eye and tell them something important or receive important feedback.

I hope that when the Internet reaches its 40th anniversary, we will have moderated its use. We should focus on what it provides us that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. And not cat videos, old episodes of “Speed Racer” and 24/7 shopping. We should continue to use it as the most powerful research tool ever and to bridge distances when no other option exists.

But whenever and wherever the option exists, we should never ever allow the Internet to replace face-to-face communication. I wish I could see you nodding in agreement.

Communicating with people who are not in the same location as you for a meeting is complicated. As more meetings occur with people working from home and in remote offices, ensuring that online meetings and conference calls remain effective takes on new importance.

These challenges came up after I spoke to a group about how a speaker can take charge of the room, how to establish and keep focus, methods for assessing your audience’s understanding and interest, and other keys to effective communication. Afterward, an attendees asked if I had any tips for when attendees aren’t in the room where the meeting is taking place.

The issue is that so many of the cues we use to guide whether our thoughts and ideas are reaching the audience disappear when we cannot easily or interact closely with others in the audience.

Altering the Feedback Loop

(In the case of this meeting, two people listened to my presentation online. And in retrospect, I didn’t engage them at all, nor did the team-building activity we did in the conference room work well for them because they could not participate. Had I known in advance of the remote participants, I would have changed the activity up. Now I know to ask in advance.)

The big question is how do you overcome the fact that you cannot use eye contact or body language as clues for someone’s interest or engagement?

You have to shift your approach. Rather than using your eyes, you have to use your mouth and ears more. Instead of seeing if your words are landing as you hoped, you have to solicit from the remote attendees whether they are landing. Moreover, you have to listen to what they say in response to inquiries, as well as what they may not say.

Tips for Remote Attendee Feedback

Here are some hints for getting the same information as eye contact and body language offer when one or more people is outside the room:

1.    Ask along the way if the people online are following and if they hear. Invite them to speak up if they get lost or if people are talking over one another.

2.    Have someone coordinate with remote attendees. The group I spoke to assigned a member to monitor written messages from remote attendees.

3.    Specifically and strategically invite feedback from out-of-the-room attendees.“John, do you have any thoughts on the topic?” or even “Anything to add, John?” Not only will this ensure they can contribute, but it will keep them on notice that they could be called at any time.

4.    Go slower. People who are not in the room are not going to get the hand movements and other gestures and facial expressions you use so their ability to process the information you are sharing may be slower. Slow down to give them time to process.

5.    Tailor presentations to the realities. People who are out of the room cannot be in small groups so those types of activities are best left out. Nor can they easily see slides that are presented so provide them with the slide deck in advance.

6.    Ask for takeaways. One way to ensure that everyone is engaged is to tell them at the beginning that near the end, you plan to ask everyone for one takeaway from the presentation.

This old teacher’s trick works to keep everyone engaged because they now realize they have to say something intelligent about the presentation. They will listen more intently because they know they have to share. No one wants to fail at this test or say something wrong or silly.

Dealing with an audience that’s in more than one location is an acquired skills. But as more people work remotely, the demand on being an effective communicator in spite of this challenge will only increase.

Most of us assume – foolishly – that we should magically understand and excel at the convoluted process of acquiring a job. That logic, as all too many of us find out firsthand and quickly, is flawed.

How can we perform well at something that we weren’t taught and rarely get to practice? Why would we excel at a skill set (writing a great cover letter and resume, killing it at one or more interviews), whose evaluation is simply “yes” or “no”, with no built-in mechanism for feedback to make us better?

Think about it: You got the job so you think, logically, that you did well at the process. You didn’t get the job, which means you didn’t do something or many things in the process right. But which one or ones? The interview, the follow-up, the eye contact, the way you walked, what you wore? The list goes on and on, and no one’s going to tell you because no one can really know for sure.

A subjective, lottery-like process

At its best, a small portion of the hiring process is subjective. At its worse – when the company follows no formal process, doesn’t ask the same questions of all candidates, doesn’t use a rubric to evaluate job seekers and leaves it up to feel – the process is basically a lottery.

These flaws riddle a process that’s critical to every person’s career and life.

Most people flounder their way through it, making costly mistakes and miscalculations without even knowing it.

I have coached thousands of people on getting a job – from thinking about their candidacy, and how to write a killer cover letter and resume to how to take control of the interviewing process in powerful ways that position you as a viable, if not THE candidate.

Technology hasn’t helped

This process has changed greatly in the last few years. Job seekers send their resumes to any and every job they find online, creating hiring fatigue among employers before the first candidate is interviewed. To overcome this deluge, many companies rely on technology to take the first cut at the dizzying number of resumes they collect. In a good many cases, the things they are screening for aren’t what they really want, if they even know, in the person they hire. Screening calls, and phone and Skype interviews, further complicate the technical process of getting a job.

Equally befuddling to many applicants is how employers have shifted their hiring focus. Smart employers are looking at the soft skills, those interpersonal skills we use to accomplish work with other people, as much, if not more, than people’s technical expertise. They want a strong combination, and applicants have to articulate these soft skills at every phase of the process to win the position.

An employer-applicant disconnect

Yet employers rarely ask questions geared toward teasing out these critical skills, and when they do, applicants aren’t well versed in how to answer.

The result is the equivalent of two ships passing in the night. Employers think they know what they want, but don’t really know how to ask what they need to so they can get it.

Applicants don’t know what the employer really wants, because it isn’t clearly articulated in the job announcement or in the other steps of the hiring process. And applicants are reluctant to break free of the old-school approaches to resumes, cover letter and interviewing that their parents and others advise them to cling to.

Connecting your past to employer’s future

Learning or remembering these critical skills when you are in the midst of a high-stakes competition for that job of your dreams is nearly impossible, as is self-reflection at how you did at each step. You have too much weighing on you to be analytical at the time it could help you most.

One of the hardest things for people to figure out when applying for job is how to effectively connect their past experience to an employer’s current or future needs. People often discount or undervalue their past experience. But when properly told, these stories from our past can explain not just your soft skills portfolio, but how you look at the world.

For instance, when applying for several teaching positions, I spoke about what I learned when I was a camp counselor in my teens and early 20s. Not only did I share an ongoing passion for teaching, but I also conveyed how I view the educational process and where I fostered my commitment to people’s ongoing growth and development. Great anecdotes can shoot you candidacy to the top of the list.

Before you find yourself in a job hunt, start developing your ability to share short, crisp, insightful anecdotes about your prior experiences. Mastering this skill will pay off handsomely when you are seeking a job and it might put you ahead of the other applicants who didn’t practice this art.

Pressure is one of the realities in today’s fast-paced business environment. To not be able to deal well with pressure is to practically guarantee you will be ineffective in performing your job. Today, we will discuss dealign with pressure and give some tips for handling pressure at work.

Cohosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham discuss:
* Finding the sweet spot in handling pressure
* The Yerkes-Dodson Law
* Pressure and control

Some suggestions for dealing with stress:

1. Accept that stress is a part of life and work. Don’t fight it. Don’t complain about it. Just acknowledge it.
2. Anticipate stressors. If you know a deadline is coming, make sure you eat well, get a good night sleep and clear as much as possible in advance of that day.
3. Don’t take on other people’s stress. Different things cause each of us stress. Listen to others, but don’t make someone else’s stress yours.
4. Make time for daily stress-busting activities. Taking a walk, deep breathing, meditation, journaling, exercise are among the strategies many people use to combat stress.
5. Don’t make stress worst than it is. Stress will come and go. Can you remember the stressors in your life two months or two years ago? Probably not. Just let them go.

Have you joined The Soft Skills Revolution? We are giving resources out for free to people interested in better understanding their soft skills. It’s free and it’s easy. Just provide your email and away you go. Nothing to buy or sell. Jut go to thesoftskillsrevolution.com.

Next week

We will tackle another soft skill. New episodes come out each Wednesday.

We all have to face ambiguity, even if we don’t want to. And while few of us actually become comfortable with it, we can employ strategies that help us make it at least bearable.

The ever-faster spinning of our business lives makes the soft skill of dealing with ambiguity one most of us must face in our professional lives more and more. Managers and leaders face it constantly. The farther you go in your career, the less clear things become.

Getting comfortable with ambiguity is an essential business skill and one that many entrepreneurs especially struggle with.

We Long For Control

Most of us want to control as much of our lives as possible – what we eat, who we spend time with, how much sleep we get, where we live, what car we drive, how we will retire. And for the most part, we have control over those things; most of them are functions of our choices.

Business is different. We can make the right choices and derive a bad result because our actions are only part of the equation. Business is about working with, for and against other people and companies. They do what’s right for them, or at least what they think serves them best. We do what’s best for us. The two cannot always coincide. As a result, we find uncertainty and ambiguity permeating our business ventures all the time.

Huge Decisions Riddled With Ambiguity

Here’s a common example: A company creates a product or service and tries to set a price. The company struggles to identify the right price. They assess the competition. They assess people’s views on the product or service. They make their best guess. But if they are wrong, the consequences can be enormous. A product or service that could make a difference in people’s lives fails because it’s price is too high or too low.

Pricing is just one area of uncertainty. What if the marketing message is unclear? The website looks off? The name is wrong? The benefits don’t resonate with the ideal customer? Or if people aren’t ready yet to address this problem in their lives?

Businesses face this challenge everyday. It’s a reality.

Strategies For Combatting Uncertainty

Finding strategies to address our feelings surrounding ambiguity can help greatly.

Here are four hints for combatting the fears that arise with ambiguity, drawn from a discussion I had with Dr. Tobin Porterfield, on our Serious Soft Skills Podcast.

  1. Accept that ambiguity is real. Easy choices don’t always exist. Taking action, even if it’s the wrong action, will bring you one or more steps closer to your goal.
  2. Keep a compass. Know what you are trying to accomplish and keep true to it. People, circumstances, finances and other factors will
  3. Call in the reinforcements. Find people and other sources of information and support that are solid no matter what else is happening.
  4. Heed the signs. When things appear to be faltering, recognize it and react. Remember, inaction is the enemy of any success. A course adjustment, even if it takes you farther from your intended target, still provides you valuable insight that can help the next course correction or the one after that put you back on track.

The more we fight ambiguity, the more a toll it takes on us and our plans. Facing the reality that is ambiguity head-on can keep you moving toward your goals, when others are getting sidelined worrying about things they can never control.