Dear Dave: I work at a company that has mostly survived the pandemic so far. I work with good people who want to keep their jobs and they work hard to keep the company afloat.

Our management is determined to provide everyone with information and keep us up to date about the company’s progress and how we are doing financially. However, I think we may be getting too much information, because my coworkers are confused by what they hear, and they think management is telling them just about anything to keep them happy. This ends up making them worry more about our future. In some ways, it may be better to hear only what we should. Does this make sense? – D

Dear D:

Yes, it does make sense. I think that too much information actually weakens us and confuses us. This is especially true when the information is poorly presented by management and workers are left to wonder, “Now, what does that mean?” However, I think your managers mean well; they just need to be clearer about what they mean.

I’m not telling you anything new, but every day we are faced with a flood of information from newspapers, cable networks, social media, podcasts, and other forms of communication. We are left to [try to] make sense of the information, make it useful, and then pass it on to coworkers, family members, and friends. It is an understatement to say that having heard many people saying many different things – especially if they are panicking – scares us and makes us quite uncomfortable.

Simply, we don’t want people to lie to us; we just want to know what we need to know and to stop right there. Otherwise, we are forced to reduce information to states where what we hear and see hardly makes sense any longer. The opposite – in my mind – is the situation where we are starved for facts and data to the point that we start making up our own information and start passing around bogus news, data, and statistics. In organizations – just as it is in our personal lives – controlling [accurate] information and using the best means to communicate it takes thought and planning.

In truth, I believe I am somewhat of a slow processor, because my mind often wanders when people are speaking to me – especially those people that have little to say. This means – when I hear things – I might not be fully capturing, right away, what the message authors have to say. I then need to ask the speaker to rephrase or even just repeat what he or she just said. I am comfortable with my slow processing condition, because it tends to make people use fewer words and get more to the point of their message when they converse with me. I then get “the right amount” of the information I need.

Receiving information and trying to make sense of it takes time and – yes – our effort to focus and pay attention. Trying to understand what we are bombarded with and – in all respects – trying to be certain about uncertain statements can do nothing but cause a lot of problems. In many ways, we spend our whole day trying to validate what people tell us or send us. In short, instead of getting the news in a straightforward, accurate, and no-nonsense way, we are given opinions, instructions, ideas, and even gossip in many ways from many people and we are left to research whether or not what someone tells us – in person or in written form – actually is the truth and makes sense. I know this sounds cynical, but I believe it is true.

We have also perfected the “Yea, yea, yea response” to tell people “we get it” and we can move on. I am willing to bet that our use of this response might not mean that we actually understand what was said; we just want to appear like we are “fast processors” and are quite capable of “getting it” right away – when in all actuality – we just want the speaker to stop talking, so we can chime in with the brilliant things we have to say.

Your battle with understanding and uncertainty

Ambiguity means things are vague and uncertainty refers to situations in which we are faced with imprecise, insufficient, or conflicting information. Take a look at the armchair physicians telling their family and friends to do this or do that to keep the the COVID-19 virus away. I think their advice should be vetted to a large extent to determine if it matches what the experts are trying to tell us. I admit that I have been guilty of saying things about the virus that might or might not be absolutely credible – I am human, darn it!

As a coping mechanism at your place of work, try to consolidate the different sources of information you receive and try to get clarity through what psychologists call “triangulation,” which is using multiple measures or methods to ensure that what you see and hear converge and produce the same result. Accordingly, seek out and rely on information that is reported consistently through multiple [reliable] sources. And, when people are telling you things that you silently question, you must say to yourself, “How do we know that?”

If you take these steps to screen and reduce the “clutter” thrown at you, informational uncertainty will leave you with the mental capacity to cope with the many other important issues you must do at work.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu. Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.