Embrace Ambiguity to Master Change

These days, “normal” doesn’t stay that way very long. Some leaders have the ability to effectively adapt in the midst of nearly constant change. These leaders have developed a high tolerance for ambiguity – they are okay with not knowing. 

When I lived in Japan I watched foreigners struggle to adapt to the culture and function with Japanese language, as I too struggled. The thing about Japan is even if you are good at the language, you only ever know about 60% of what’s going on around you!

I discovered an important leadership trait by observing the group of Americans I worked with. In English-speaking environments all the Americans interacted similarly. Each were outgoing. Quick to put forward their ideas. Very warm to other people.

I noticed, however, that things changed in Japanese-speaking settings.

Some of the Americans seemed to excel. They dove in and fully participated. They treated every new situation as a game, guessing in order to fill in the gaps in their understanding to follow conversations.

Others, even though they were equally outgoing, became reserved when working in Japanese. New situations were stressful for them. They tried to avoid situations that might go beyond their language comfort, or remove the language barrier by asking someone to translate.

The levels of work productivity and personal happiness between these two groups of Americans differed greatly.

What separated the two groups? It wasn’t language ability. Nor was it personality. The answer was mostly in how comfortable a person was with not knowing. 

More and more, I’m seeing ambiguity tolerance – how comfortable you are with not knowing – becoming a critical leadership trait. Take a look at these 3 areas to see how ambiguity tolerance or intolerance affects the leader’s performance.

Ambiguity and Status Quo

When life is predictable and in control, ambiguity is low. Life, however, is often unpredictable and beyond our control. Like working using Japanese language, we may only feel we fully understand 60% of what’s going on around us. The ambiguity intolerant leader will:

  1. Long for normal to return. As conditions change, normal is gone. It has left and is not coming back. Instead, look at what opportunities the new conditions bring with them.
  2. Maintain the status quo. A leader’s job is to produce results. How those results are achieved will constantly change depending on the circumstances. Focus needs to be on results, not the process of achieving them.

A leader must constantly respond to changing conditions, even when things are not clear. Creativity results from embracing ambiguity and exploring beyond the status quo.

Questions

  • What is possible in these new circumstances?
  • If you were to rebuild your system from scratch, what would be different?

Ambiguity and the Paralysis of Analysis

Some people in trying to eliminate ambiguity seek more information. Rather than bring clarity, research usually surfaces more vagaries and options. Which must be further researched. The ambiguity intolerant leader will:

  1. Push for clarity that doesn’t exist. When I teach coaching skills, the answer to many what-if questions is, “It depends.” Some participants keep pushing, trying in vain to remove the ambiguity that naturally exists in coaching conversations.
  2. Wait for clarity that won’t exist. A leader says, “Let’s wait to make a decision until we have next month’s financial numbers.” By that time, the following month’s numbers will be only a couple short weeks away. Better wait for them. There is no perfect clarity.

Sometimes only in moving forward do things become clearer. Real-world data results from embracing ambiguity and taking steps forward.

Questions

  • What specific areas do we need clarity on? (Don’t worry about the other areas.)
  • What’s the minimum we need to know in order to move forward? (Determine an information threshold.)

Ambiguity and Making Decisions

Decisions in the midst of ambiguity feel risky. “What if I’m wrong?” “Circumstances are still changing, I better wait.” Yet, a decision removes ambiguity by deciding and therefore not having to think about it any longer. The ambiguity intolerant leader will:

  1. Make decisions too quickly. It’s tempting to decide now in order to reduce the tension that accompanies ambiguity. However, many decisions need time to simmer. New information comes to light. Options appear from nowhere.
  2. Keep options open. This is the opposite of the point above. Deciding means choosing one option. And that means giving up other options. For those with low ambiguity tolerance, waiting until they can make “the right” decision causes them to not decide.

Leaders must make decisions with the best information at hand. How much information is enough? is a question of wisdom. Achievement results from embracing ambiguity and implementing.

Questions

  • How much is my desire to reduce ambiguity causing me to decide now?
  • What are the pros and cons of making the decision now versus waiting?

Some people are more naturally ambiguity tolerant, but it is a skill that can be learned. Self-awareness and reflection will make you more conscious so you can choose your approach to ambiguity. It’s been helpful for me to identify people around me who are more and less ambiguity tolerant to challenge my assumptions.

Question: What would being more ambiguity tolerant do for you? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

    Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. You own your comments but give me permission to use them. See My Comments Policy. Read my Permissions Policy to know how you can use my posts.