Dealing with ambiguity and developing resilience

It’s hardly surprising in these changing times that tolerating or even thriving in ambiguous situations is a buzz topic in the management and leadership world. There’s a lot of ambiguity about the subject, too. I’m writing and developing coaching activities for it at the moment so have done lots of research. I thought I’d share some thoughts.

What constitutes ambiguity?

Ambiguous situations can be defined as:
– 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
– apparently insoluble situations (ones that can’t be solved in usual ways).

What does ‘dealing with ambiguity’ mean?

The competencies – what you need to able to do and demonstrate – are generally considered to involve the ability to:
– tolerate and mange change effectively
– shift gears/change course quickly and easily
– decide and act without having the total picture
– tolerate situations where things are up in the air
– move between tasks and activities without having to finish each one
– tolerate and be comfortable with risk and uncertainty.
All of this is clear enough. The question is …


There are – I think – two separate but connected parts to this ability.
(1) to be sure of yourself and to find certainty in your own judgement as opposed to looking outside yourself  for security, ‘the answer’ or ‘the solution’. You won’t find it – that’s the point.
(2) to be alert to and aware of what is going on around you – being present.

1. Being sure of yourself

This involves:
– knowing who you are and what you’re capable of
– relying on yourself and not on others, on tools and models or on precedents
– confidence in your own judgement
– viewing uncertainty as a challenge/opportunity rather than a threat
–  using your imagination, intuition and initiative
– being present and staying focused on the moment.
You need to be able to access and bring all your capabilities to the moment – knowledge, experience, skill, judgement, intuition.

Being and staying present

I think this needs explanation. I don’t just mean physically, I mean emotionally and mentally as well. You have to be alert and aware – of yourself, your responses, your surroundings, what is going on and the people around you. Think of your sensory awareness (vision, hearing etc) as a wide satellite dish, representing your full attention to what is actually happening – NOW.
To do that, you can’t have a brain-full of thoughts, voices or  anxieties. You’re not fully present if you’re preoccupied with something else. For example if you’re:
– focused on a pre-planned goal/objective
– thinking about what should be happening
– worrying about doing the right thing
– planning the next step
– worrying about something that has already happened
– worrying about other people’s perceptions of you.

It all takes work and practice, even if you’re temperamentally disposed to it.

Leadership, ambiguity and resilience

As a leader, not only do you have to deal with ambiguity but you also have to be resilient and, more importantly, demonstrate and exemplify resilience to your team/people. The two go hand in hand.
Resilience can be defined as  ‘bounce-back-ability’, and the competencies (they are all a little different) are generally something like:
1. The ability to deal effectively with pressure and stress
2. The ability to bounce back from disappointment or setbacks
3. Ability to remain optimistic and positive in uncertain, new or complex situations
4. The  ability to show and maintain strong leadership in uncertain situations.

You may feel uncertain, but you must be able to show that you are strong and that you know what you’re doing to others who will also be dealing with uncertainty and, probably, the same ambiguous situation from another angle. You need to be sure-footed and make them feel that they are in safe hands.

If you can keep your head when all about are losing theirs and blaming it on you ….‘  and so on. Thanks to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If…’