Dealing with ambiguity… more or less


Wouldn’t life be much more simple if everything was clear, everyone knew who was doing what, and no surprises ever occurred? No one has such a life, of course.  It seems there is always something happening to make the simple, more complex.  I kid my wife that no matter what project I try to do around the house, something always makes it harder than it seems, it takes longer than it should, and I never have the right tool to do it in the first place.

Projects in the workplace are much the same. Though we spend significant time upfront planning the many activities in finite detail, things happen that require mid-course corrections and skills we never knew we had to navigate the obstacles that arise.  There are also jobs that are hard to define.  Though you have a general outline of the job duties, it seems the actual duties and responsibilities change day-by-day and you never know what you’ll face when you walk into the office any day.  This is called ambiguity.

Ambiguity can be defined as:

“Not knowing the outcome. Having less information or less time than desired to make a decision.  Confusing information; lack of clarity; lack of precedent.”

Lominger (you can find more on Lominger competencies through Google) says of ambiguity:

According to studies, 90% of the problems of middle managers and above are ambiguous—it’s neither clear what the problem is nor what the solution is. The higher you go, the more ambiguous things get. Most people with a brain, given unlimited time and 100% of the information, could make accurate and good decisions. Most people, given access to how this specific problem has been solved hundreds of times before, could repeat the right decision. The real rewards go to those who can comfortably make more good decisions than bad with less than all of the information, in less time, with few or no precedents on how it was solved before.

So, what is the secret to dealing with ambiguity? Can you ever get comfortable operating in ambiguous situations?  Here are some helpful hints:

  1. Recognize that change is simply a part of life – Those that struggle the most with ambiguity are those that want everything in its place, on time, and on schedule. When you understand and accept that change is a natural part of life, you’ll be better able to deal with those times that things don’t stay the same.
  2. Get organized – One reason many struggle with ambiguity is because they themselves are not organized. When your own life is in chaos, the feeling of stress you feel is simply magnified when you have to deal with ambiguity in the workplace. Try creating a “to do” list that simply highlights the three most important things you need to accomplish each day. Focus on these three things. Getting them done with give you a sense of achievement and accomplishment that can override other ambiguity you face.
  3. Ask more questions – We often get the feeling of chaos or stress from ambiguity because we don’t have enough information. When you don’t know, ask questions. Make it a habit to ask more questions than you might feel are necessary. Each answer to a question should reveal more information and provide even more clarity.
  4. Stop striving for perfection – I have heard it said, “Perfection is the enemy of better.” You could also say, “Perfection is the friend of ambiguity.” When everything in your life must be just right, little things that do not go as you hope tend to stress you. Simply realizing that we cannot control everything and understanding that your primary focus should be on the “major things” can help you manage the ambiguity you often face.
  5. Be free about getting others involved – Don’t be afraid — or too proud — to ask for help. Allowing others to share the problem or collaborate in the issues you face can help balance your own sense of chaos… or control
  6. Be reasonable about success – You can’t control everything. And, everything you do will not be perfectly successful. Achieving a rational approach to success can help you realize that you relish the victories you do get and forget your defeats. Learning to balance these victories and defeats can help you see more clearly where you should focus your time, energy, and emotions.
  7. Just do something – Too often, individuals caught in the fog of ambiguity become paralyzed by too many choices. In many cases, the best approach is simply to “do something… anything.” Most decisions you make can be modified or corrected later. Understand the risks posed by a situation and charge forward. Doing nothing can be just as harmful and waiting, wondering, and watching.

Of course, there is no formula that can help us deal with everything that comes our way. But, being reasonable and calm can help clear the fog.

Have a splendid day! It could still be our very best yet!


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