Dealing with ambiguity

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.

Two examples of people dealing with ambiguity (or not) have struck me recently. The first is a shining example and the second points up the way that the media avoid it in their coverage of important events and issues.
First: the problems that we had with the Iceland volcano ash and individuals’ responses to it. People were stranded. There were no rules, no precedents and no guidelines. They had to fall back on their own resources. And how ingenious they were! The stories were great – and heartening. I particularly liked the one about the man who bought a second-hand bike so that he could get onto a ferry when there were no more pedestrian tickets available. And there were many more, including stories of people who decided to stay put and settled down to enjoy themselves a bit more. All perfect examples of the ability to deal with ambiguity. Apologies to anyone who had a horrendous time.

Second: this morning I heard an interview with a BP person about the latest go at stopping up the oil leak  in the Mexican Gulf. I’m no apologist for BP’s environmental or human welfare track record nor am I a supporter of the whole oil industry, so I’m not unduly biased in their favour. But I feel frustrated and patronised by the media coverage of this event. Frustrated because I’d like to hear what is actually happening without having to hear the pointless and gratuitous arguments about whose fault it is. Patronising because OF COURSE I – in common with most of the public, I think – understand that this is an unprecedented catastrophe, where unequivocal statements of truth and certainty have no place. To hear this person being slapped around and therefore having to be defensive, guarded and economical with the truth – in my name – is unedifying and annoying. We’re grown-ups. We can comprehend the complexity of the situation. Yes, it’s appalling. Yes, it’s BP’s responsibility.  WE’VE GOT IT! They have put their hands up to it. QED. Now I want to know what’s happening in the struggle to get it under control.

I see this as an example of groping unproductively for certainty when there is none. Key word – unproductive.

Leave a Reply