I Believe In Ghosts
They shift in the shadows, and hide from the light.
“Tim, we’d like you to star in a documentary series,” the man on the other end of the phone said.
“What’s it going to be about?” I asked him as I quickly sat down, my heart rate spiking.
“Well…,” he hesitated for just a moment. “It’s about ghosts.”
It’s true. I was once considered to be a star on one of those reality TV shows where the film crews follow two or three unfortunate souls on an epic journey to discover ghosts.
They open creaky doors, spit out cobwebs, and get filmed sitting in the dark – all for entertainment.
Since I was a writer, I was supposed to play the part of a journalist who would accompany historians and other pseudo-experts on a journey to seek out what was not supposed to be seen.
I said no.
(Admittedly not as quickly as you’d imagine).
Also true: I’d been scarred for life by a backyard halloween setup where we had to reach into a basket of mangled and bloody fingers to grab full-sized Snickers bars. If I couldn’t sleep after that fateful night as a 9-year-old kid, I imagined I would find myself being shaken awake by a History Channel producer after passing out once again if we did find another “ghost.”
I was not up for the ghost-hunting lifestyle.
But ghosts have a way of finding you anyway.
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By definition, apparitions are supposed to remain invisible. For unknown reasons, they’ve made themselves known, often in cobweb- infested attics or abandoned hospitals.
They shift in the shadows, and hide from the light.
I always expect ghosts and goblins in boarded up barns down the road. What I never expected was finding one right in front of me.
In my own business, of all places.
These phantoms look ordinary to you and I, but upon further inspection the invisible becomes visible. And they’re far more terrifying to me than any invisible ghost haunting an old mansion up the street.
They haunt the hallways of each and every job you’ve ever worked, causing invisible damage through their actions and words.
They’re ghosts because they don’t belong. These ghosts are called confusion and uncertainty. For as long as you let them stick around, they will continue to haunt you.
And believe me, it’s so easy to let them stay.
“Hey, can we talk?” asked an employee.
Nothing is more terrifying to hear as a business owner than these four words.
This place is toxic, they told me.
I didn’t want to accept it, but it was true.
In the early years of my business, I knew things weren’t nearly what I had hoped they would be. I wanted a place that produced elite results — instead, I let people who showed up late stick around. I wanted a place where people were developed and grown, but I allowed leaders who were rude to employees more chances. I wanted a place where people cared about the customer experience, but when I saw an employee walk past trash on the floor, I shrugged it off and picked it up myself.
In those early days, it felt eerie walking into the building. I was haunted.
I finally realized the cold feeling coming over my shoulder was the ghosts of confusion and uncertainty. My lack of clarity around what I expected to happen and my consistency around accountability let them in.
And without some good old fashioned ghost-busters actions, they weren’t going anywhere.
How to Get Rid of the Ghosts
I realized in order to rid yourself of the ghosts of confusion and uncertainty, you must become obsessed with core values.
These ambiguous ghosts hate clarity.
For my team, every action and decision goes through the framework of our core values. This serves as a key mechanism for clarity and is the key for removing these opaque ghosts from haunting our team.
Seeing people get out of alignment gives us goosebumps. Misalignment in actions reveals the hidden hauntings of our team members. We have to help them.
If we care about professionalism, for example, we don’t tolerate an employee throwing ice at another team member “for fun” (yes, real story). If we care about productivity, we don’t tolerate complaining about having to clean bathrooms or do the tasks you’ve agreed to complete for the job.
It’s too easy to make excuses and to let things slide in the name of being supportive. People-focused managers are always highly regarded by the team as kind, gracious, and supportive — but results tend to suffer. It may beat an autocratic leader, but it allows these ghosts to remain in the building and lurk in the shadows.
Great leaders are obsessed with clarity, because clarity is kind. They know that when the team is clear on expectations and results, the leader can get hands off, and maintain a tension of both results and people.
Nothing drives aways the ghosts of confusion and uncertainty like clear expectations.
Don Charlton from Inc. Magazine rightly points out, “When employees feel un-coached, unappreciated or unproductive, they don't always quit and move on to a new job. Instead, many disengaged employees choose to "hang in there" until the right new opportunity comes around, working hard to keep their discontent a secret. These disconnected employees quietly hurt employee morale, retention, and productivity.”
When things are unclear and leaders fail to lead, ghosts will haunt these employees and drive them into disengagement.
We have to do something.
Here are two simple but powerful suggestions:
Don’t compromise. Sam Corcos, CEO at Levels, has said his expectations are extremely clear when it comes to who sticks around in his organization. “All people are aligned, or they leave.” I know for me personally, it’s so easy to let things go that just don’t seem that important. In reality, I’m creating confusion and uncertainty for my team and my leaders when I do this. Clarity is kind.
Don’t wait. Sometimes the ghosts of confusion and uncertainty are being allowed in by individual employees. These employees invite and create uncertainty or confusion. When that’s the case, it’s time to let them go in order to rid yourself of the ghosts and to give clarity back to the organization. It’s never easy, but putting off the inevitable allows for continued damage to be done every single day. (By the way, I’ve shared before about my temptations and struggles around letting people go).
Even though I never signed up to be on a History channel ghost-hunting expedition, every day I’m focused on removing the ghosts that might lurk in my organization.
Great organizations may have a cobweb or two, but they should never look like haunted houses.
When you start seeing employees are out of alignment with your values and expectations, and the chaos of confusion and uncertainty echo through the halls, it’s time to pick up your ghostbuster tools.
Whether it’s that clear job description, specific core values, or just a candid conversation, the ghosts of confusion and uncertainty will flee at the sound of clear expectations from a kind and firm leader.
**Special Thanks for their tremendous feedback and help in finding my way through the dark halls of the haunted house: , , , and . **