Featured Post: Ambiguity in the workplace – 7 ways to handle it

How to tackle ambiguity in the workplace

Ambiguity at work can lead to stress, anxiety and depression.

We are living in uncertain times. Clarity and certainty seem to be disappearing especially for groups which previously felt secure. Ambiguity in the workplace, which is what we are left with, is one of the key causes of stress and anxiety. This eventually spills into our personal relationships and wider cultures from those places of work. Many of us feel under pressure to be available 24/7, so now levels of fatigue are also factored in as we become sleep and rest deprived.

The stress continuum expands further.

Ambiguity in the workplace


Research from Harvard and Stanford Business Schools examined 10 common job stressors including long working hours and job insecurity. The paper linked health based issues such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and decreased mental health to life threatening conditions, which kill 120,000 people every year in the United States. They conclude that diseases caused by work related stress are more deadly than diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or ‘flu.

It is well documented that dealing with ambiguity in the workplace causes anxiety. When employees are anxious they feel defensive and access to the executive function in the brain is reduced. Decision- making becomes based on instinct, or learned patterns of behaviour, rather than reason. The ability to process and learn is also equally diminished.

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The result is a cycle of poor decision-making which leads to increased ambiguity, stress and anxiety. Dealing with ambiguity in the workplace, and the uncertainty that it generates, is a significant challenge for today’s leaders and managers. It needs to be a top priority.

7 tips to deal with ambiguity in the workplace:

1. Define the framework and set clear and achievable objectives

When employee engagement is high, the levels of ambiguity will decrease. Even positive change can be stressful if the processes and outcomes are not clear.

2. Understand your staff and their coping mechanisms for managing stress

Everyone will have different trigger points. Factor that into your dealings with them. The one size fits all, and a “need to suck it up and get on with it” vibe, will not work long term.

3. Give clear and concise instructions to your employees

Don’t perpetuate and extend the ambiguity. Be clear in your instructions, reporting guidelines and benchmarks for success. Trying to read subtext and not knowing if there are subliminal messages can result in crazy-making thinking leading to further ambiguity. Take the time to find out what your team need and support them.

4. Make decisive decisions

That sounds like a duplication of words. It isn’t and doesn’t imply an authoritarian process. A process can be collaborative, but at some point a decision has to be made. Take it and commit to it. Make that decision decisively, communicate it clearly and take action. Ambiguity leads to uncertainty and confusion. This is bad for morale and ultimately business.

5. Give training on resilience and confidence

Any exposure to scenarios that allow employees to hone their skills will allow them to do their jobs more effectively. A lack of confidence causes hesitancy and leads to ambiguity. This in turn generates a culture of no confidence.

Read: How companies benefit from employee self-confidence.

6. Make sure employees take their vacations and lunch breaks

In periods of uncertainty the general response is to throw people, time and energy at a problem. Very often the reverse is true. Rested, calm and measured energy is more productive than frantic “busyness”.

7. Encourage Mindfulness in the organisation

Mindfulness helps focus on the moment and creates an awareness of both a situation and any potential knee jerk reactions based on emotions. It also reduces the reliance on behaviours rooted in implicit bias and previous learned behaviour patterns. With practice it will eventually result in an ability to step back psychologically and emotionally to make calm decisions. It creates an awareness of your other thoughts and physical reactions.


3Plus, 3Plus online e-Gazine for professional women, Leadership, Wellness, Workplace
Staff Writer: Leadership and Competence Building
Staff Writer: Leadership and Competence Building
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