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Mar 20, 2024 Leslie Beale, PCC, JD

Muddy Waters: What Happens When a Team’s Vision is Murky

Cheryl sat at her desk and picked up her cell phone. It was late on a Friday evening and she was alone in the office. She sent a text letting her college friends know that she was going to have to miss their monthly dinner. Again.

Truth be told, Cheryl was thinking about giving her notice. She’d been in her role as Chief Revenue Officer for four years, but rather than finding her stride, she’d never felt more frustrated and exhausted.

As she reflected, she couldn’t shake the feeling that if the executive team just had a clearer picture of where they were going, they could get there. They had the talent, tenacity, and commitment, but were lacking something crucial that their CEO, Lloyd, wouldn’t—or couldn’t--give them: his vision.

When Leadership Falters, Teams Flounder

Leadership is complex; along with a slate of skills such as empathy, agility, and masterful communication abilities, a leader is supposed to, well, lead. But to lead, he must be crystal clear on where he is going… enough so to be able to influence and inspire others to follow. 

Although the primary goal of any standout leader should be to identify and communicate a distinct vision for their organization or team, too many neglect this crucial step. The effects are costly and far-reaching--to include dwindling engagement, diminished productivity, and, as in Cheryl’s case, the risk of losing top talent.

Without a vision, teams simply can’t achieve their full potential. Unable to prioritize tasks or pivot quickly, they become mired in confusion and delay. Below are additional signs that your organization may be struggling to follow their leader.

Blurry Roles and Responsibilities

When people aren’t clear on where they are going, it can be very difficult for them to understand how to contribute to the organizational cause. In a study conducted by InVista, research showed that employees in roles fraught with ambiguity were 1.5 times more likely to leave the company. For maximum effectiveness, each team member not only needs to know and understand his job, but also how it connects to the broader mission of his team and organization.

Sluggish Decision-Making

In 2022, Gallup reported a decline in the engagement of employees who lacked a “connection to the mission and purpose of the company”. When a leader can’t provide a clear North Star for their organization, daily actions are hampered by indecision and simple questions become unnecessarily complex. Not understanding the goals of their company, workers begin spinning in place instead of achieving lift-off.

Confusion, Conflict, and Miscommunication

According to a survey commissioned by Lucid, 47% of employees felt that some projects missed their objective due to alignment issues. Confusion, conflict, and miscommunication prevail when the vision is unclear, and alignment is impossible. Solid facts morph into opinions subject to debate, and team members become rivals jockeying for position. While trying to take the inside lane on their “competition” they become hesitant to fully engage because they’re never sure when the winds will shift… and they’ll be asked to move in a different strategic direction.

Exhaustion and Burnout

When everything matters, nothing matters. Teams and organizations who haven’t received a clear vision from their leader are often overextended and on the verge of burnout. In 2021, the American Psychological Association’s Work and Wellbeing Survey reported that work-related stress negatively impacted 3 out of 5 workers mentally and physically, with 32% suffering emotional exhaustion and 44% experiencing increased physical fatigue. Team members who are fuzzy on what matters most find it impossible to prioritize, or say no to, ideas or projects. As a result, new things keep getting added to the snowball as it rolls downhill, but nothing is ever left behind.

Taking Back the Reins

Unfortunately for Cheryl, she and her team had checked off many of the boxes above. But shortly after she arrived at the office the following Monday, she was surprised to see her boss at her door.

Lloyd told her that over the weekend he had realized she’d been quiet during the last several meetings, and wondered if everything was okay. Cheryl paused, then remembered a recent training she and her fellow executives had received about timely feedback. She decided she had nothing to lose by telling Lloyd the truth.

Responding in kind, Lloyd admitted to his CRO he’d been struggling with his vision for the company. The first decade he had been in his role it had come easy: he lived, ate, and breathed exciting ideas for the organization’s future. Since weathering COVID, however, he had felt empty and depleted. He knew it was time to dig deep and regain his own footing as the company’s visionary, and Cheryl’s honesty about her distress was the wake-up call he needed.

Soon after, Lloyd met with his executive team and “came clean” with his situation. With the air cleared, the great people he had surrounded himself with were able to pull together and offer him the support he had given them in the past—and their next quarter’s earnings reflected it.

This case, fortunately, had a happy ending. If you’re recognizing any signs that your own team is faltering, however, now is the time to take action. Book a call today—we’re here to help.

Published by Leslie Beale, PCC, JD March 20, 2024
Leslie Beale, PCC, JD