Reducing Ambiguity

Tags: academia, musings

Published on
« Previous post: The Great Deprival — Next post: Human in the Gaps: Thriving in the New … »

When talking to budding Ph.D. students or new trainees of any sort, a shared concern is the prevalent attitude of ambiguity, in particular when it comes to their designated managers, leaders, supervisors, professors, or principal investigators. Conversations between trainees and their managers1 are often steeped in ambiguity, leading to detrimental results and a needless amount of second-guessing.

For instance, during my own Ph.D. work, my own literal-mindedness2 was often challenged by statements of my supervisor. I interpreted statements like ‘I would set the paper up like this’ as a suggestion, only to find out later that it was not meant as a suggestion at all. It took several of these situations to finally figure out the pattern here, but I still felt quite bumbling and had troubles navigating conversations with my supervisor, at times even dreading their advice or not seeking it more actively.

After moving into my postdoctoral position, I was elated—and chagrined—to find out that other people had the same issues with their supervisors.3 The cause of this and other issues seems to be a general deficit in leadership techniques in academia; by and large, we academics typically just tend to copy whatever we learned from our own supervisors, call that ‘best practices,’ and leave it like that. My hypothesis is that few supervisors are capable or willing to be upfront or straightforward in their conversations with trainees because they lack the means to express themselves. Some also dread ‘micro-managing’ everyone under their auspices. Some—very few, but it seems everyone knows some supervisors like this—might also just be unwilling (or unable) to take a specific position lest it backfires later.

This tactic shares some commonalities with the motte-and-bailey fallacy, insofar as making ambiguous statements permits you to easily adopt a different position by stating ‘I never meant that’ in case something goes wrong. No one embodies that better than Henry II, whose statement ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ was interpreted quite literally and liberally by a few of his knights,4 leading to the infamous murder of Thomas Becket. Of course, in academia the consequences of ambiguity are nowhere near as dire as in this case, and not every example of ambiguity arises out of a need for plausible deniability. Nevertheless, I believe that one of the many duties of managers is to reduce ambiguity as much as possible to create a culture for open communication to flourish.

Our students, trainees, and all those who trust us to provide leadership need to know what we mean when we communicate with them. It is our responsibility to be aware of how we choose our words. We do not need to go to needless extremes here as Matthew 5:37 suggests,5 but we should try not to be careless in our speech. Since I started advising more students of my own, I thought deeply about my own word choices, essentially telling everyone that I aim to be as clear as possible, laying my intentions bare. I also started communicating my own expectations upfront,6 making it abundantly clear whether I am just making an observation,7 a suggestion, or need something done in precisely that way.

I will still make mistakes, but I hope I at least reduced some ambiguity.

  1. I will keep using this term, encompassing anyone with any sort of leadership responsibilities. ↩︎

  2. I am the first to admit that this one is on me, and I have since ‘adjusted my priors’ to a certain extent. ↩︎

  3. Cue a collective ‘Duh!’ from my readers, but in my defense: people do not typically talk about these things. ↩︎

  4. Multiple versions of this saying abound; I picked a shorter one on purpose because it illustrates the problem sufficiently well. ↩︎

  5. ‘But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ ↩︎

  6. While this is by no means to be taken as a ‘managerial README,’ I even started preparing a research guide for my students, in which I collect some words of advice, expectations, and try to confer some of the lessons I learnt the hard way—in the hope that others do not have to learn them that way. ↩︎

  7. Although I heed the advice by Derek Sivers on not adding my two cents all the time, since it can be detrimental to project ownership. On the other hand, I hope that clearly-established ways of communicating with one another make it clear that my two cents are really just that, i.e. minor or inconsequential suggestions. ↩︎