The difficulties and methods of navigating ambiguity in uncertain times

Navigating ambiguity is particularly difficult as it is a case of dealing with the unexpected. However it is possible to better understand the impact and be better prepared for uncertainty at work.

There is a lot going on in this world and many people are feeling overwhelmed. Every day we are expected to handle unprecedented levels of ambiguity which makes our lives more complex, challenging and subsequently more stressful. And not everyone deals well with it. I am increasingly asked to include a segment on navigating ambiguity and uncertainty in coaching or training programmes and I thought this would be helpful.

Definition of Ambiguity

plural ambiguities

1 a : the quality or state of being ambiguous especially in meaning

  • The ambiguity of the poem allows several interpretations.

b : a word or expression that can be understood in two or more possible ways : an ambiguous word or expression

Source: Merriam Webster

Navigating ambiguity

We know we are encountering ambiguities in the workplace and navigating ambiguity and uncertainty when:

  • We face a situation where there are a number of possible sources and/or outcomes. They are the “what the hell?” moments.
  • A situation which is totally new and there are no protocols in place to deal with it or precedents to reference.
  • We can’t apply the usual processes or applications to find a solution. We need new ones.

How does navigating ambiguity impact the workplace

Periods of change or uncertainty require different skills to the ones required for maintenance or consolidation, which imply a level of stability. Everyone involved in an ambiguous situation needs to be able to:

  • Process and evaluate complex and sometimes conflicting data, usually from multiple and frequently disparate sources.
  • Assess the results and create a response, with an ability to anticipate outcomes of each potential option, which can involve making decisions based on incomplete data.
  • They will need to feel comfortable with uncertainty during the period when no decisions have been made and manage the repercussions of this hiatus. Brexit is a good example of this.
  • They will need to multi-task; assessing priorities while making continual and oftentimes shifting risk assessments.

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Competences required for navigating ambiguity

Two key elements for anyone to focus on, in any exercise, to prepare themselves for these types of situation are not rocket science and less complicated than it may seem. There is no magic formula or snake oil. It should be part of a standard career management programme.

  • Self and other awareness

Self-awareness is rooted in doing your inner work. It’s about having a firm idea of your goals, values and vision. It implies knowledge of where you are headed and why you want to go there. If you are self-aware you will have grasped your strengths and development needs. This should give you confidence in your own abilities and judgement, plus allow you to delegate without micro-management. Confident leaders motivate and inspire, especially those who have an optimistic outlook and are not overwhelmed by a situation. They are able to stay calm when others are not, widely acknowledged as being a key leadership skill.

  • Emotional strength

Individuals are emotionally strong when they are able to listen and observe what is going on around them. They will know when they can be a leader versus when they assume the role of learner and need to rely on the skills of others. The strong individuals are able to ask questions without making assumptions and are fully present in any dealings they might have. It is possible for them to focus on the task or person in hand, without being distracted. They respond consistently and revert to command and control leadership style only when required.

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10 Tips for navigating ambiguity and uncertainty

Navigating ambiguity requires strong analytical skills, emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, self-awareness and excellent communication skills. But like any other career and leadership activity, these higher level concepts can be broken down into achievable and easily managed practical steps.

  1. Do your inner work – Understand well your goals, values and vision. Write them down somewhere. Carry out an audit of your strengths and personal development needs. Lewis Carroll said if you don’t know where you are going any direction will get you there.
  2. Be confident in yourself and your abilities -Trust your judgement, that inner voice which speaks to you. This is not your inner critic – the voice that self-sabotages and holds you back. Confidence inspires and motivates people and draws them to you. If you are struggling, find a coach or a mentor.
  3. Assess the facts of the situation – As well as listening to peers and reports. Ask for feedback and pose questions without judgement. Remember two or multiple heads are better than one, especially when dealing with complex and conflicting data. It’s easy to miss something alone, but  different personalities and learning styles come at situations from different perspectives.
  4. Don’t procrastinate to make a decision– Don’t wait until that perfect moment when all your ducks are lined up– they may never be. Sometimes taking a risk and potentially making a wrong decision will be the best you can do.
  5. Manage your message – Learn to deliver clear instructions and outcomes assertively and without hesitancy. Be focused and allow people to ask questions. Check that you are all on the same page. Things might be clear to you, but frequently they are not to others.
  6. Do not micro-manage – Empower your reports to do their best. You can’t do everything yourself and you are setting yourself up to underperform if you try to take everything on.
  7. Be open to changing course – Mental agility, the ability to reassess your situation based on new information, and crafting responses to that with accuracy and commitment will all be important.
  8. Learn what triggers your stress points are and how to manage them – We all get stressed. It’s important to know how this impacts your behaviour and monitor yourself.
  9. Be consistent – Consistency fosters trust. Consistency can be connected to stress management, although not always. If the people around you are second guessing your reactions, they are not focusing on the task in hand.
  10. Forgive yourself – If things don’t go smoothly be forgiving, and celebrate when they do.

Navigating ambiguity and uncertainty is going to be one of the top sought-after skills in a world that is becoming increasingly complex and unpredictable, whether culturally, politically or in the workplace. It’s worth working on.

There are many things in life which are ambiguous, but some have straightforward answers. 3Plus can help you thawing at least one aspect at our event on How to Deal with Sexism and Harassment in the Workplace.

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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