Occasionally a team member or two seem clueless on the concept. They haven't understood something basic to the effort, or worse, they think they understand, but they don't. If the rest of the team is wrong — and doesn't realize it — even one clueless individual can truly be a gift. Debates lead to new understanding, and usually that's progress. But most often, the minority view was just wrong, and everyone else was on the right path.
Sometimes the minority is confused because of indolence or distraction. That's best treated as a performance issue. At other times, the problem is miscommunication, or lack of background, or the difficulty of the concept itself. If this situation is handled indelicately, it is most fraught with risk to relationships.
Here are three tips for avoiding those risks. In what follows, Charlie is the clueless one, and I'll alternate Charlie's gender.
- The clueless usually don't identify themselves
- If Charlie doesn't realize that he's clueless, he sees no need to announce his cluelessness. But even if he senses that something is amiss, he might conceal his confusion to avoid embarrassment, especially if ridicule or derision — even the good-natured kind — is part of team culture.
- Even when everyone seems to grasp the issue, it can be risky to assume without careful verification that they actually do. Be attuned to the nuances that suggest confusion.
- Misimpressions and misconceptions happen for a reason
- Charlie might have developed her conceptual understanding on the basis of ambiguous information. The information might not have been sufficient to clearly distinguish between the misconception she developed, and the concept everyone else acquired. Charlie's version of the concept might actually be consistent with the information she was given.
- Even though the If people don't realize that
they're clueless, they see no
need to announce
their cluelessnessinformation Charlie got might have been identical to what others received, her past experience and knowledge might have led her to see things differently. To manage this risk, be ridiculously explicit when communicating difficult or abstract ideas. Use numerous examples.
- Consider a private discussion
- When you suspect that Charlie's conceptual understanding is somehow incorrect, public inquiry is an ineffective and risky way to investigate the matter. By the time others suspect confusion, Charlie almost certainly does, too. He'll notice any investigation, even the indirect kind, and he might very well respond so as to conceal the misconception.
- A private conversation can be much more productive and sparing of Charlie's feelings, because he's more likely to be forthcoming in private than he is in a more public setting.
Very likely, you felt that you weren't clueless on the concept of being clueless on the concept. But if you were clueless about it, you wouldn't have known it. Anyway, I hope you aren't now. But then, I have no way of knowing. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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