6 Feb 2020

Career Development

How to deal with ambiguity

Written by Chrissie Stanley

It’s been said that in today’s world, the only constant is change 

Change in its self is not an easy thing. But, with the speed that situations are able to evolve now thanks to digital innovations, coupled with the size and global-reach of organisations, the complexity of these changes can lead to ambiguity.

As a business leader, not only do you have to be able to deal with ambiguity, but you also have to be resilient while doing so – and, more importantly, demonstrate and exemplify resilience to your team/people. Resilience and dealing with ambiguity have to go have in hand.

What is ambiguity?

Ambiguity can be defined as “a completely new situations with no familiar cues or precedents”; “complex situations in which there are a great number of cues and/or stakeholder interests to be taken into account” and “apparently insoluble situations (ones that can’t be solved in usual ways)”.

In short, ambiguity is a set of circumstances in which you have to take action, but you don’t have an obvious direction to head in. It could be a completely new occurrence, a situation where you don’t have the full data about what is happening, or a time when you have to try and meet opposing goals.

Sources of Ambiguity

Ankush Chopra claims that there are four types of ambiguous situations, which he categorises as:

Goal Ambiguity: This includes any situation where there are differing goals competing to be satified by the same situation. As businesses get larger and have an increasing number of stakeholders, the number of goals, targets and objectives also increase – and not all will sync with each other.

Mental Model Ambiguity: This occurs when you have a lack of knowledge, skills or experience to understand the task and how to solve it. Ankush uses the example of not having the knowledge of a particular industry, but it includes anything that you would need to know to fully grasp what is happening and map out a strategy to move it forward.

Motive Ambiguity: A bit like in the board game Cluedo, people’s motivations are not always obvious. And, this type of ambiguity occurs when the motives of some or all of the stakeholders in the situation aren’t clear. Motives help to frame the ‘why’ of what we’re doing, making the end goals clearer and easier to aim for.

Outcome Ambiguity: This happens when it isn’t possible to predict the range of possible outcomes of a situation. The future can seem scarily uncertain in these circumstances, which can lead to a feeling of fear – which only makes things worse!

Tips on how to deal with ambiguity

Although it may not come naturally to some people, everyone can learn to deal with ambiguity with the right knowledge, skills and mindset. Here are my top tips:

Suppress your urge to control things: It’s understandable to want to feel in control of your business – and the rest of your life! However, this can result in stress when ambiguity enters the scene. The business world is getting more complex not less, and trying to control everything is like juggling too many plates. Try to suppress the notion that you are ‘controlling everything’ and trust in yourself (and team) to do the right thing.

Learn to act without the complete picture: While it can be comforting to know that you have all the information you need to make a decision with absolute certainty, in an ambiguous world this is never going to happen. Don’t delay on making your decision, while you wait for that final bit of hard data to come in. It may not materialise, or the opportunity may be missed. Instead, get all the information available, make the best decision you can and act on it.

Accept that some of your decisions will be wrong: Whilst you will have made the best decision that you can, with the information available at the time, some of the time it will be the wrong one. It’s inevitable. But a wrong decision is often better than no decision. Without a decision there is no action, and plans stall or situations get worse. Get comfortable with making mistakes by looking at them as learning opportunities. While being a good business person may be about making good decisions, no one is right 100 per cent of the time.

Be flexible: As more information comes to light or the situation changes, you need to adapt and change course. Ambiguity can reveal facts at any time that are going to affect your best decision. Be willing to accept these as gifts and incorporate them into your decision-making so you can make the necessary changes.

Learn to deal with uncertainty: To deal with ambiguity you need to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. As uncomfortable as it may make you, not knowing the next step – or even what is currently happening out of earshot from you – is a necessary part of modern-day leadership.

Be confident in yourself and your abilities: Part of learning to deal with uncertainty is having the confidence in your ability to respond to what you can’t control. A great article that looks at confident people is ‘9 Qualities of Truly Confident People’, by Dharmesh Shah. Dharmesh argues that confident people are not afraid to take a stand, are good listeners, avoid the spotlight, ask for help and aren’t afraid to be wrong. They also avoid putting others down and own their mistakes. Having these qualities will help you adapt and respond to any situation thrown at you.

Learn to deal with your stress: Even when you have “conquered” all of the above, ambiguity can still cause stress. It’s important to learn how to manage this stress effectively so you can continue to be productive and effective. When you’re relaxed you are far more able to respond to problems and challenges with successful solutions. Investing some time in cultivating a relaxed state of mind is important to your leadership skills. Figure out what tactics work to enable you to calm yourself down in challenging situations and ensure you have outlets to relieve your stress – both at work and outside of work.

Ambiguity is challenging by definition, but you can learn to deal with it. And, it’s becoming an increasingly important skill both professionally and personally, so it is worth mastering.

If you’d like some one-to-one coaching to help you feel confident in dealing with ambiguity get in touch.