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How to Deal With Ambiguity: Guidelines and Resources

Copyright Carter McNamara, Authenticity Consulting, LLC

Sections in This Topic Include

What is Ambiguity?
Causes of Increasing Ambiguity in Life and Work
Test - How Well Do You Deal With Ambiguity / Uncertainty?
Strategies to Deal With Ambiguity in Life and Work
Example of an Ambiguity Tool: Polarity Management
Additional Perspectives

Also consider
Concentration
Creative Thinking
Critical Thinking
Mindfulness
Mindsets
Reframing
Strategic Thinking
Systems Thinking
Related Library Topics


What is Ambiguity?

One of the biggest challenges for today's leaders and managers is dealing with increasing ambiguity in their jobs. Wikipedia nicely defines what this ambiguity is:

"Ambiguity is a type of meaning in which a phrase, statement or resolution is not explicitly defined, making several interpretations plausible. A common aspect of ambiguity is uncertainty."

You are dealing with ambiguous situations when you see that there is more than one solution to a problem, but you aren't sure which one to do. Or, it might be when you come to a conclusion about a situation, but before you can act on it, the situation has already changed.

Causes of Increasing Ambiguity in Life and Work

Words Can Have Different Meanings

One of the biggest causes of increasing ambiguity is the increasing diversity of today's workforce. Among different cultures and personalities, the same word or phrase can have very different meanings. For example, what was deemed as "bad" before might be interpreted as being "very cool" today. Thus, what was a criticism before, could be a compliment today.

Similarly, what is appropriate behavior in some cultures can be very offensive in others. For example, direct eye contact in some cultures can be means to show active listening and deep respect. In others, it can be intimidating.

Thus, it is important, not only to recognize which words and gestures to use, but also to tactfully explain one's choice when necessary.

What Worked Before Might Not Today

Today, there is increasing competition among organizations as they expand their markets around the globe. Consequently, organizations must become more effective and efficient in their operations than ever before. They cannot languish in the often highly reactive and chaotic start-up stage of development. Instead, they must more quickly evolve through the growth stage with its strong focus on internal development and then onto the mature stage where it can be much more competitive.

As a result, today's leaders and managers are faced with choosing from among different styles of leadership and strategies for growth. They are dealing with driving forces that are causing change like never before.

Dealing with Ambiguity: The New Business Imperative

Test - How Well Do You Deal With Ambiguity / Uncertainty?

Here is an online test for you to decide how well you deal with ambiguity yourself.
How Well Do You Deal With Uncertainty?

What do you want to do with the results of the test? Consider some of the strategies listed below.

Strategies to Deal With Ambiguity in Life and Work

Fortunately, there are an increasing number of guidelines and tools for dealing with ambiguity.

Strategies to Manage Yourself

  1. Enhance your interpersonal skills, so that you can have more patience with others and they can have more patience with you.
  2. Strengthen your communications skills, so you can be even more clear is saying what you mean without others inadvertently hearing something else.
  3. Manage your time and stress, so you can be more patient with the confusion and frustrations that can often occur when dealing with ambiguity.
  4. Strive for a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset, so you can see ambiguity as an opportunity for learning.
  5. Practice mindfulness, so you can be more present in the moment and not focusing on your confusion and frustrations.

Strategies in Leading Others

  1. Learn about strategies for leading during uncertainty, for example, the VUCA style of leadership.
  2. Explain ambiguity and its causes to others, so they can be more patient with themselves and others. Share this article with them.

Strategies to Understand Other Cultures and Perspectives

  1. Learn to appreciate diversity and inclusion, so you can be even more sensitive to how others might interpret things quite differently than you.
  2. Acculturate the activities as much as possible to match the needs of various cultures involved in your life and work.

Strategies in Decision Making and Problem Solving

  1. Learn creative ways to make decisions and solve problems, for example design thinking and organic problem solving.
  2. In your decision-making, aim for a consensus style where others can provide input. The more perspectives in a decision, the more likely the decision will be accurate and useful -- or at least, the more patient those involved will be with the outcome.
  3. Use the Pareto Principle, to do the first 20% of effort that generates the first 80% of results.
  4. Be realistic in expectations and deadlines. Build in means to make changes to plans as necessary.
  5. See ambiguity as means to more creativity and innovation because it challenges the mind to see things differently.
  6. Understand principles for successful change, because there will very likely to increasing changes in how you respond to life and work.

Embracing Ambiguity in the Workplace (Includes Tolerance of Ambiguity Scale)
Tools for Dealing with Uncertainty, Ambiguity, and Paradox: Reflective Methods for Group Development

Example of an Ambiguity Tool: Polarity Management

A typical example of an ambiguous situation is where there seems to be two solutions, but they seem to contradict each other. For example, you believe that a problem would be solved if people were more self-empowered -- but you also believe that it could be solved with the opposite: more team work. Or, you believe that communications could be better if people listened more -- but also if people were more clear when they expressed themselves. These situations are called polarities. Here's an article that explains how you can use polarity management to address these ambiguous situations.
Managing Polarities

Additional Perspectives

How to Deal With Ambiguity in the Workplace
The Essential Skill for Career Development – Dealing with Ambiguity
Managing Ambiguity: the Essential Skill for Career Progression
The One Skill You Need: Ambiguity Tolerance
Ambiguity in the Workplace – 7 Ways to Handle It
Dealing With Ambiguity in the Workplace
Learn How to Deal With and Manage Ambiguity in the Workplace


Learn More in the Library's Blogs Related to Personal Development

In addition to the articles on this current page, also see the following blogs that have posts related to Personal Development. Scan down the blog's page to see various posts. Also see the section "Recent Blog Posts" in the sidebar of the blog or click on "next" near the bottom of a post in the blog. The blog also links to numerous free related resources.

Library's Career Management Blog
Spirituality in the Workplace
Training and Development Blog


For the Category of Personal Development:

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Also, scan the Recommended Books listed below. They have been selected for their relevance and highly practical nature.

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