How to manage ambiguity in the workplace

ByHanover Team
Posting date: 22 November 2021

Ambiguity and uncertainty can be complex issues, especially in the workplace. They can also arise from many different situations, and as I’m being asked increasingly frequently by my clients how to handle them, I want to address the topic here and provide some practical approaches for individuals and teams.

People’s responses to ambiguity will be widely varied - what some individuals may find challenging on various levels, others may enjoy or view as an opportunity.

The psychological construct of ambiguity tolerance-intolerance has been the subject of countless theories since its introduction in 1949. Originally proposed during studies into ethnocentrism and prejudice in children, ambiguity tolerance-intolerance is still studied and explored in psychological research today.

Perhaps more relevant than ever in the wake of a global pandemic, individual differences in ambiguity tolerance-intolerance in the workplace is a serious underlying issue. And it’s one that’s well worth considering, as it can seriously affect both individual and team performance.

So, how does it impact your leaders and their teams, and what can organisations do to help both individuals and teams navigate ambiguity?

What might trigger ambiguity and uncertainty?

In his 1962 paper, ‘Intolerance of ambiguity as a personality variable’, Stanley Budner of the New York Psychiatric Institute described what makes an individual ambiguity-tolerant or intolerant.

He suggested that some individuals perceive ambiguity as a form of threat, whereas others see ambiguity as almost desirable. He went on to define three different types of ambiguous situations:

  1. A situation with no familiar cues 
  2. A situation in which there are many cues to be taken into consideration 
  3. A situation in which cues suggest the existence of different structures to be adhered to

In more recent years, ambiguity itself has also been described as anything that is different from the familiar, with an emphasis on people and cultures.

And, of course, the workplace is a minefield for all types of ambiguous situations. For example, this could be when a business is being acquired, when there is a possibility of redundancy, when cultural differences occur and when organisations are operating across different countries with a different set of cultures and approaches, to name a few.

There will be individual differences in how employees manage these ambiguities, which means there’s a risk for a divide in the workforce. Having individuals with varying levels of excitement vs. anxiety can disrupt the workflow and workplace, and potentially create tension within a team.

How individuals can approach ambiguity

A lot of ambiguity tolerance-intolerance stems from personality, so it’s important to start with the individual. In terms of career progression and workplace success, managing ambiguity is an essential skill. Coping with uncertainty and ambiguity is an inevitable requirement not just at work, but in life too.

Individuals who can effectively manage ambiguity are able to:

  1. Cope with risk and uncertainty
  2. Exercise effective problem-solving skills
  3. Adapt to change
  4. Make decisions based on the amount of information they have available, even if it isn’t the whole picture

There are a number of steps individuals can take to become adept in managing ambiguity, starting with developing their self-awareness. They can seek out opportunities to develop their leadership skills, build their resilience and actively try to identify their own stress triggers or derailers so they can then manage them.

Understanding their approach to risk, purposefully putting themselves into a new situation and undertaking development in any areas in which they lack confidence can also be beneficial.

How teams can approach dealing with ambiguity

Once all individuals have taken steps to recognise their own ambiguity tolerance-intolerance levels, they will then be more adequately equipped to support and help each other navigate times of uncertainty and ambiguity as a team.

When working within a team, it’s important that all individuals act with empathy to create a comfortable and safe environment for everyone to raise concerns. These will be different for different people and voicing them is a key step in the process. Talking openly and being aware of our own feelings, thoughts and emotions - but importantly, also being aware of how others feel, might provide a different perspective and create a sense of unity.

Getting the team together to explore these and putting together a strategy to manage ambiguity as a collective will also have a ripple effect at an individual level.

Our Leadership Solutions team can work with your leaders and teams to support them in managing ambiguity. For tailor-made support, get in touch with us

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