One issue that has received considerable attention among management researchers is causal ambiguity. The notion of causal ambiguity is defined as a lack of understanding of the relationship between desired outcomes and the actions and resources needed to create the outcomes. Causal ambiguity is particularly problematic during change. People need to move from the present state to a new desired future state. The present state is created by a combination of resources and capabilities that has been successful in creating the present and past outcomes. Yet, it is not always clear to everyone what are the new resources and capabilities needed to create the new desired future state.
HumanCap’s experience in change management consultancy repeatedly shows that top management tends to assume that organizational members understand what needs to be done to realize the outcomes of a change initiative. They tend to assume that because the organization has had a launching ceremony or a town hall meeting to kick off the change initiative, everyone in the organization would be on board and knows what to do. Nothing can be further from the truth. Instead, we constantly found a gap between what top management desires and what members understand.
Sometime perceived causal ambiguity arises because of the lack of communication. Members know the desired outcome but haven’t got a clue what they, as individuals, need to do. Sometime causal ambiguity can also emerge because of overwhelming communication. Too much information is given such that members couldn’t figure out what are the major and minor issues or what are the outcomes and the actions needed to create the outcome. They can’t separate the chaff from the wheat. In one organization, the corporate communication guys gave a one hour briefing on the change initiative using a Powerpoint presentation that was 80 pages long!
The intuitive thing to do when experiencing miscommunication is to communicate more. What else should be done when members do not understand the information conveyed? The research that my students at the Leadership of Innovation and Strategy Research Group in UTM and I did shows that the remedy is not so simple. Building on the work of earlier researchers like Szulanski, Cappetta and Jensen, we found that perception of causal ambiguity is also shaped by the level of trust in an organization. When people are presented with a set of information by top management, their level of understanding and perceived causal ambiguity differs depending on their trust in management. Those who have a high level of trust are more likely to be deferential, accepting and uncritical of the information given by top management. On the other hand, those have a low level of trust tend to be skeptical, critical and more likely to doubt the information. This means that differences in understanding of the information conveyed by top management is also shaped by attitude, specifically the level of trust members have towards top management.
So, the next time there is a miscommunication problem in an organization, do not assume that the best remedy is more communication. Conveying more information to an audience who have low trust towards management and are skeptical may simply amplify the cynical reaction. The lack of trust is usually because of events and experiences that organizational members went through prior to the change initiative. The trust could have eroded because many change initiatives started earlier did not lead to success, promises made that were not kept, general low regard towards top management and also because of acrimonious organizational politics. Thus, a key step in solving miscommunication and overcoming causal ambiguity is to gauge the trust climate in the organization and figure out how to improve it. Take specific steps to rebuild trust and win over the confidence of organizational members. Building trust should also be a key concern in communication planning during change. Create dialogue so that there is mutual sense making and understanding. Unfortunately, many town hall meetings are just one-way monologues followed by a brief Q&A sessions. Those leading the meetings come with a fixed mind and show little interest in understanding the views of other, are even less concerned about learning from others and in some cases tend to be dismissive of criticisms. These meetings are just downloading sessions that perpetuate skepticism and disinterest among organizational members. Leaders return from such sessions thinking they’ve done a good job but followers return feeling not much wiser.
Trust is a sine qua non and an important foundation in change management. Building trust helps build commitment and a positive attitude during change. This will go a long way in improving reaction to information given and overcome causal ambiguity. Improving communication should go hand in hand with building trust but cannot substitute the lack of trust. Trust me.