Dealing with Ambiguity

Dealing with ambiguity is a competency that often comes up in the workplace and is something my clients often talk to me about, both in a personal and professional context.

What is ambiguity and why is it desirable? 

Dealing with ambiguity is about coping effectively with change, it’s about being able to make decisions and to act on them without necessarily having a complete picture, without full information. It’s about being able to sit comfortably with a level of risk and uncertainty. Unsurprisingly, this makes many people decidedly uncomfortable.

While some of us are better at ambiguity than others, the good news is that dealing with ambiguity is something we can develop. Why do we need to, you ask? Well, as I’m sure you know, the environment we work in is changing rapidly. Many of us have been exposed to at least one, and often many company restructures. Technology is impacting the way we work, with many people working off site, or without a fixed desk and the pace of change often means decisions need to be made quite quickly.

What could ambiguity look like? 

Ambiguity shows up in many common situations that start well before you enter the workplace. A few of my own examples would be choosing a university course at high school with little life experience; travelling overseas on a one-way ticket with limited dollars, knowing I would get work, but not being sure what, how, or even in which country; living in share households; starting a romantic relationship. All these situations relied on an element of trust that things would be ok, as I didn’t have full information in any of these situations. Instead, I learned to make decisions and to problem solve based on the information I had at the time.

Your own similar experiences will have provided fantastic experience and learning that can be applied in a professional context where you may experience one or more of the following:

  • Stepping into a management role and not being sure how to lead your new team
  • Changing career and not knowing where it will lead you
  • Managing a project when you don’t have complete information, or the goalposts change
  • Starting a new business and not being sure where your next piece of work will come from
  • You might be in the middle of a restructure and you don’t know what the future will look like

The impact of ambiguity

The thing about ambiguity is that it embodies uncertainty and as such, can result in feelings of overwhelm, stress, fear and can prevent us from moving forward or from implementing the actions we need to take.

Managing ambiguity

Your ability to manage ambiguity is linked to how much you trust yourself to cope with change and to problem solve on the spot if things don’t go according to plan.

There are a number of things you can do to build your ambiguity muscle:

  1. Apply a learning mindset – you don’t have to be perfect and you will learn so much from ‘testing the waters’ and perhaps even getting a few things wrong.
  2. Manage the overwhelm – you can reduce overwhelm by taking small steps. Often you don’t need to implement big actions all at once. Absolutely start with the end in mind, but take small, incremental steps to get started. This not only reduces overwhelm, but allows you to more easily change direction if necessary when you have more information.
  3. Focus on problem solving – draw on your ability to problem solve. Trust that you will be able to deal with what happens as it happens, rather than needing to have an answer for everything up front.
  4. As Nike would say, ‘Just do it’ – be aware of a tendency towards perfectionism and balance this with action. Again, smaller steps can make this easier.
  5. Redefine success – appreciate that success can be as much about managing the ambiguity as it is about achieving the result. Make managing the ambiguity your goal and celebrate each win along the way.
  6. Manage stress – this is a whole other blog! The key though is to know the stress management techniques that work for you. Often this is acknowledging that you only really have two choices, change the situation, or change your mindset.
  7. Focus on communication – ask questions and check your assumptions, ensure you provide as much information as you can for others and ask for feedback on small steps as you move forward. Finding a trusted sounding board is also a great idea when problem solving.

Finally, remember that managing ambiguity is not something that you either can or can’t do. It’s something you learn and the best way to learn something new is to practice, so pick situations that are less important for you and have a go at acting on the information you have right now.

Warmest wishes,

Laurenne Di Salvo