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Job Distress and Mutual Learning

August 9th, 2012

I hear people expressing that they are feeling distressed in the workplace today. The reasons may be varied. However, there does seem to be a common thread with many of my discussions lately. I hear comments like the following; “I could handle my job and the stress better if I just knew the rules of the game” or “I thought I knew my job, but I keep getting subtle messages that I’m not doing it correctly” or “The only way I know what I’m supposed to be doing is when I do it wrong and someone lets me know”.

Comments like these cause me to think about a common job distress indicator; role ambiguity, which is defined by William L. White in The Incestuous Workplace as a worker’s inadequate knowledge of (1) role expectations, (2) task priorities, (3) preferred methods of task completion, (4) whom he or she is directly accountable to, and (5) rewards and punishments related to superior or inadequate performance. When there is a lot of role ambiguity within an organization, you can count on there being a lot of distress in the workforce. Role ambiguity within the organization can also be a signal that the organization is struggling with its sense of mission and its strategic goals, leading employees to uncertainty of their role in the organization.

So what does the “Mutual Learning Model” have to do with role ambiguity? Well first let me remind you of the “Mutual Learning Model” as described by Roger Schwarz in The Skilled Facilitator. This model is based on the core values of;

1. Valid information,

2. Free and informed choice,

3. Internal commitment and

4. Compassion.

The “Mutual Learning Model” uses these core values to develop strategies for dealing with conversations that may actually be a leading factor in role ambiguity. The strategies are;

  1. Test assumptions and inferences,
  2. Share all relevant information,
  3. Use specific examples, and agree on what important words mean,
  4. Explain your reasoning and intent,
  5. Focus on interests, not positions,
  6. Combine advocacy with inquiry,
  7. Jointly design next steps and ways to test disagreements,
  8. Discuss undiscussable issues, and
  9. Use a decision-making rule that generates the level of commitment needed.

If individuals are experiencing role ambiguity, perhaps operating out of the “Mutual Learning Model” could be a way of addressing this ambiguity. The employee and the supervisor could start by sharing all the relevant information known in order for the decisions to be informed and freely chosen. By sharing this information and freely making decisions with the information the employee is more likely to be committed to the organization and the job because they will have a better understanding of the role and the duties expected.

In the course of having this conversation, the supervisor and employee could utilize the strategies to avoid any ambiguity about what is expected or decided. If the employee is uncertain about what the supervisor is requesting, the employee is likely to make assumptions and infer the desired outcome. If these assumptions and inferences are not tested for accuracy, the end result may be that the employee fails to meet the supervisor’s expectations, thus adding to the confusion about the employee’s role.

A key factor in this conversation must be the supervisor’s willingness to be open and transparent about the desired outcome and provide any and all information that is relevant to the role. Without all of the relevant information, the employee cannot make a free and informed choice, leaving the employee to guess at what the supervisor is wanting.

During this conversation between the employee and the supervisor the other strategies can play a powerful role in helping alleviate the ambiguity experienced by the employee. Using specific examples always helps with clarity. Being open and transparent of your reasoning and intent and focusing on interests could go a long way to helping the employee and supervisor address the undiscussables.

Implementing these values and strategies to create a common understanding of the individual’s role and expectations could be a powerful force for eliminating role ambiguity and, therefore, job distress. Until next time, if you are experiencing job stress due to role ambiguity, consider what the “Mutual Learning Model” has to offer you as a tool for more job satisfaction.

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