With bonuses banked and new goals in hand, the beginning of each new year brings the sliver of clarity that some uneasy employees await. As a result, the calendar’s first month often gets the dubious distinction of being the one with the highest rate of staff turnover. Instead of clearing out, employees and their managers can clear the way—for opportunities that spark ambition and deliver value within the organization.

Corporate communicators can smooth the path for individual and organizational growth. In our roles as cultural stewards, we can give business leaders the tools to inspire a healthy tolerance for ambiguity, which steadies employees in unsteady times.

Staying Power

When used in creative expression, ambiguity can serve as a storytelling device to great effect. William Shakespeare introduced Hamlet, the world’s poster boy for confusion. In comedy, masters of humor leave just enough room for misinterpretation. “I shot an elephant in my pajamas,” is the classic one-liner from Groucho Marx. But irony in employee communications is no laughing matter.

The workplace experience is complicated enough. The daily give-and-take among people involves much more than the economic transaction of ideas, skills and labor for financial and non-wage benefits. Work colleagues also tacitly agree to provide each other with intangible rewards, such as fairness, loyalty, honesty, conscientiousness, discretion and so forth. Greater meaning is infused into professional relationships when people commit their competence and character.

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Unfortunately, expectations aren’t always communicated properly. When not addressed in a work relationship, ambiguity creates the jagged fault line separating unexpressed needs from actualized ones.

Business communicators should pay close attention to a 2018 survey from Work Institute, which found that salary is not the top reason people leave their jobs. According to data gathered from 234,000 exit interviews, the factors most often cited by employees who quit are:

  • Career development (21 percent)
  • Work-life balance (13 percent)
  • Manager behavior (11 percent)
  • Well-being / Compensation & Benefits (9 percent each – tie)

Something else was more surprising: Employers could have convinced 77 percent of departing staff to stay.

Culture Club

It may be difficult to grasp the murkiness around fundamental issues that shape an employee’s work identity and experience. The results of the Work Institute survey suggest that managers and employees may not have the relationship structure, common language or motivation to engage intentionally and directly—all of which are elements that form corporate culture. What defines culture? The code of behavior and treasured symbols that bind people. These shared values can be so strong, they endure with individuals even when the organization or leaders are no longer thriving.

At shuttering retailer Sears, employee allegiance may outlast the company itself. While reminiscing at a reunion of retired alumni, many considered their Sears experience to be special because “they worked for a force in American culture and business.” The former employees felt a sense of pride in belonging to an organization that was known for dependable Whirlpool appliances and the Christmas “wish book” that brought joy.

Leaders who hold themselves accountable to their organization’s value system also inspire deep loyalty. When Blake Nordstrom, co-president of his family’s namesake company renowned for its customer service, passed away from lymphoma suddenly at the age of 58 a few years ago, employees publicly expressed their grief and admiration on social media. One recalled Nordstrom’s simple decency: “Fond memories of Blake, one, yr’s ago when he helped me push & distribute a loading cart full of Store Directories prior to a new opening & then bought me pie in the cafe. R.I.P. #leadership.”

Two-Way Streets

To be fair, some decisions to quit are no-brainers. An unbearably long commute. Manual labor that is too physically demanding. Of course, there is the major deal-breaker: the conflict between personal beliefs and corporate values.

What do these situations have in common? They involve sacrifices that an employee may be unwilling to accept: quality time, personal health and individual principles. Now, consider those same compromises from an employer’s standpoint. For the organization, the standards of employee well-being, safe work environments and institutional integrity are also non-negotiable.

Professional relationships operate as two-way streets. For a host of reasons, many that start small and then become impossible to overlook, employees and managers can end up “quitting” each other—more so than the job itself. However, when benefits based on trust and respect are readily reciprocated, the relationships between individuals strengthen and the organization prospers.

Flirting with Disaster

“Is my job secure in this economy?” “Will this error jeopardize my reputation?” “Can my colleague be trusted with sensitive information?” “Will our clients get along with my new hire?” “Can our business survive a crisis?”

It’s natural for employees and employers to think about risks. For an entrepreneur managing a small operation, however, these same threats must often be considered on a catastrophic scale. Despite the constant flirtation with disaster, how do entrepreneurs cope with ambiguity? Some believe that those who successfully build businesses are hard-wired with a heroic capacity for risk-taking or calmness.

Business-minded individuals do possess certain unique combinations of behaviors, experiences and access to knowledge and financial resources that help them cope with ambiguity. There is an extensive body of scholarly work in pursuit of defining the unique make-up of an entrepreneur, including those based on theories of personality. One such study, widely accepted as scientifically valid, suggests that entrepreneurs score higher in measurements of openness to experience and conscientiousness while lower in agreeableness and neuroticism (i.e., difficulty responding to stressors).

However, William B. Gartner, a Babson College professor and entrepreneurship researcher, believes that individual characteristics don’t matter nearly as much as what the entrepreneur does. “Entrepreneurship is about organizing the future,” Gartner says. “In Schumpeterian terms, entrepreneurs are ‘combiners’, that is, they organize (individuals, markets, factors of production, relationships, ideas, etc.) in new ways … Successful organizing involves creating value for others.”

Value for Others

As corporate communicators, we embrace the business concept of creating value for others. Our goal is to convert value-creation into the emotional currency of gratitude, an asset that builds mutual value for those who impart it and those who receive it. By encouraging employees to sincerely tell each other how and why their contributions matter, we can take steps to reduce ambiguity at work.

The mission, vision and values we shape create a sense of purpose and belonging. Stating our corporate belief system also establishes the common language that employees will use to negotiate the everyday exchanges of value. We create affinity for our organization by having a well-defined communications structure to which all employees have access and will want to contribute. This framework includes various internal communications channels, through which employees can express appreciation for specific actions demonstrating exemplary skill and creativity.

But it’s not only positive reinforcement that counts; it’s also the mindful, honest way in which mistakes are gratefully acknowledged as opportunities for employees to learn and grow. Human agency and trust are essential drivers of an organization’s corporate culture, giving employees control amid uncertainty.

With a common language and the clearly defined means to share gratitude, it becomes crystal clear: Corporate communicators can empower employees to create value for themselves and others within the organization.


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