Getting comfortable with ambiguity
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have all been faced with more ambiguity than we perhaps thought possible. There is no end point, no certainty and our “new normal” can change daily. However, by leading with resilience and investing in developing working relationships with each team member, there will be less fear and anxiety.
What is the effect of ambiguity?
Our brains naturally like order and certainty and are challenged by situations that are unclear. So, in the working environment, not having all the answers to how something will go, not knowing how to operate a new piece of equipment, uncertainty about the direction the organisation is taking, or the result a review may have on job roles … coping with these unavoidable situations can lead to feelings of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety.
Navigating such situations has become the norm and the ability to cope with change has become a fact of life in today’s workplace. It has become widely acknowledged that developing skills to face ambiguity is essential in order for individuals and teams to thrive. However, the style of leadership provided can also hold the key as to whether such ambiguity leads to positivity or negativity within a team.
Open leaders are more effective
Open, transparent leadership where ideas are encouraged, and the individual team members are inspired and nurtured to become the best they can be, has been proven to be more effective than fear-based methods.
Thriving in times of ambiguity and change
A leader who demonstrates resilience skills and invests time and effort in encouraging their team members to develop such skills will not only succeed in normal times but will thrive during the sort of uncertain times we currently find ourselves.
Some valuable resilience skills include –
Acceptance: treating uncertainty as a challenge and not a threat
Boundaries: display the ability to cope with stress and pressure
Empathy: establishing an understanding for someone else’s situation and respect for their choices and position
Mindfulness: being present physically, emotionally, and mentally, not being distracted or pre-occupied about something else that happened in the past or might occur in the future
Realistic optimism: remaining positive in uncertain situations
Self-awareness: being aware of who you are and what you are capable of
Self-efficacy: having confidence in your abilities to achieve your goals
Examples of leadership behaviour to help a team thrive
Communication is the best way to remove ambiguity. Give clear instructions and don’t leave staff second guessing what you mean, always encouraging them to ask questions if they are unsure.
For example: A member of your team hands you a document with their recommendations for a piece of equipment you requested. At the time you are up to your eyes in other things, so you say ‘thanks’ and carry on with what you were doing. Your intention is to look at it later and get back to them. However, because you didn’t communicate this to them, they are left in an ambiguous state – are you not really interested in their opinion, have they annoyed you in some way, or perhaps you didn’t say anything because you didn’t want to be critical of the way they have presented their work? The resulting ambiguity worries them, leading to unnecessary anxiety and confusion which could then lead to reduced productivity.
If you wait for everything to be clear cut and black and white before making a decision, you may never get out of an ambiguous situation which could leave you paralysed to move forward and in a continuously anxious state.
So, it is important to be confident in your ability to make good decisions. You will need to be realistic that, on occasion, rather than delaying, you may be better to make a decision based on the facts you have at the time and accept that you will make mistakes but you will learn and grow from them.
Change in our workplace is inevitable and has many positives. However, it often brings with it a lot of unknown quantities and unanswered questions - in other words, ambiguity. Being self-aware and aware of what is happening around you is an essential skill that requires you to be fully present. So, although planning ahead is crucial, worrying about how a situation will look a month or year from now will stop you from being fully present and fully adaptable to a changing situation.
Tips to help your team deal with ambiguity
Having a leader who is seen to cope with adversity will embolden team members to follow suit, coupled with an encouragement to develop growth mindsets -
• Encourage 'out the box' thinking – different ideas can help find innovative solutions and lead to elevated levels of problem solving.
• Celebrate successes – reminding your team of occasions when you have overcome adversity will build confidence and lead to future uncertainty having a less negative effect.
• Be decisive in decision making – fear and anxiety that stem from uncertainty can be dissipated to an extent if decisions are taken, perhaps sooner than might otherwise be the case, providing a clearer path to something certain.
• Work collaboratively – guiding different perspectives will ensure situations are understood from every angle and giving positive feedback for input will enhance feelings of credibility.
We deliver resilience training for leaders, teams and individuals. Courses are available live online and face-to-face (where current restrictions permit).
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