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Painfully unclear

Derek, a senior manager, is a man plagued by his own insecurities.

Tasked with overseeing the development of a new software application, he finds himself in a position that demands decisiveness and clarity – qualities he sorely lacks. In his world, commitment equates to risk, something he avoids at all costs.

When assigning the project to Emily, the project manager, Derek’s instructions are frustratingly vague. Phrases like “make it innovative” or “ensure it’s user-friendly” slip easily from his lips, but they are hollow and devoid of substance. Deep down, Derek is terrified of being specific. He fears that committing to any particular direction could backfire, leaving him exposed and vulnerable to criticism or failure.

Each time Emily approaches him for more detailed guidance, Derek feels a wave of anxiety. Her requests for clarification are not just questions in his eyes; they feel like threats, cornering him into making decisions he’s desperately trying to avoid. So, he deflects with more generalities, cloaking his fear under a veil of managerial jargon. “Think outside the box,” he says, a phrase as meaningless as it feels safe.

In the days that follow, Derek watches from a safe distance as Emily and her team pour their energy into the project. He keeps his involvement to a minimum, the ambiguity of his instructions being his safety net. When Emily sends drafts hoping for feedback, Derek’s replies are ghostly whispers of guidance, “Looks like you’re on to something,” he types.

The day of the presentation feels like walking a tightrope over an abyss. As the prototype is unveiled it becomes painfully clear that it’s not what the VP expected. Derek’s heart races.

In a desperate bid to protect himself, Derek resorts to what he knows best – avoidance of blame. “This isn’t quite what we envisioned,” Derek hears himself say. He invents a feature, a lifeline woven from thin air, claiming its importance was implied.

As he deflects the blame onto Emily and her team, Derek feels a twisted mix of relief and guilt. His cowardice has saved him, but at the cost of others’ efforts and trust. He watches as Emily and her team grapple with confusion and disillusionment. Their pain and disappointment are palpable, but to Derek, they are a necessary sacrifice for his own preservation.

The aftermath is chaotic. The team, demoralized by the criticism, must go back to the drawing board, causing significant delays in the project timeline. The lack of clear direction from Derek not only led to wasted effort and resources but also eroded trust within the team. Team members start hesitating to make decisions or take initiative, fearful of unseen expectations or changing goalposts.

That’s toxic vagueness, my preferred term to describe the intentional use of unclear or ambiguous communication as a strategic weapon to evade responsibility and accountability. It thrives in environments that care more for whose fault it was than how to find a solution. It nurtures insecurity and frustration.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz