Ambiguity anxiety

Ambiguity anxiety may be replacing change resistance as something managers must learn to deal with.  How to we recognize it, how do we cope with it?   I ask, because it’s come up in several meetings this week.  No, it’s not just in relation to Brexit.  It’s about reporting lines, accountabilities, client/customer single point of contact, ‘what are we doing here?’ and so on.  I’ve heard it in statements like ‘People want clarity, they don’t like ambiguity’ and ‘At the end of the day they just want an org chart to see who they’re reporting to’.   Ambiguity has come up in some emails too:

‘At tomorrow’s team meeting we will be thinking a bit about how we work through ambiguity and how we can make it easier for the team to deal with uncertainty. If you’ve got any ideas or thoughts in this area it would be helpful if you could come prepared to share them.’  And from another team ‘At this week’s team meeting we talked about dealing with ambiguity and if there is anything more we can be doing to deal with that.’

Ambiguous is the ‘A’ in the now well-known acronym VUCA (Volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous).  On VUCA there is plenty of guidance in how to lead through it, what it means for you, the competences you need for it, etc.  A lot of it is in lists which seem, to me, to be completely obvious and not specifically helpful.  For example, Leading in a VUCA World requires:

  1. Developing a shared purpose
  2. Learning agility
  3. Self-awareness
  4. Leading through collaboration and influence
  5. Confidence to lead through uncertainty

There’s nothing there peculiar to a VUCA world, or that that develops new thinking about the VUCA context or useful ways of ‘managing’ it.  On that last, I hope we don’t fall into the trap that we did with ‘change’ that the VUCA world can be ‘managed’ as if it were a tractable thing.

Focusing on ambiguity and you find less guidance than on working in the VUCA world, and what guidance there is, is often a similar level of list as for VUCA.  For example, in Leading Effectively in a VUCA Environment: A is for Ambiguity we learn ‘three ways to lead more effectively in an ambiguous environment’.  They are:

  1. Listen well
  2. Think divergently
  3. Set up incremental dividends

There’s not much in the lists that give practical and usable information on how to do the item listed.  How do you actually learn to ‘think divergently’, for example?  If you could – would it help assuage any anxiety when faced with ambiguity?

A better list comes from Colin Shaw in Dealing with Ambiguity: The New Business Imperative.  He has items including, Understand that some of your decisions will be wrong.’ And ‘Realize there is not a defined plan you need to follow.’  But again, this advice not easy to put into practice.

What I’ve noticed, in the articles and in the discussions/emails is the lack of definition around what ‘ambiguity’ actually is.  I think people use the word ambiguity when they actually mean ‘uncertainty’.  David Wilkinson makes a good distinction between the two in a short video, The Difference Between Ambiguity and Uncertainty. Ambiguity is a situation in which something has more than one possible meaning and may therefore cause confusion.  Wilkson illustrates by means of a single image that can be seen as either a rabbit or a bird.  Uncertainty is the feeling of not being sure what will happen in the future.  If you’re looking for further detail on VUCA definitions, Jeroen Kraaijenbrink does a nice job distinguishing, defining and visualising them.

Maybe it doesn’t matter too much which word people use because, in general, it’s the anxiety about not knowing that is the issue.  And if we could learn to live with not knowing – perhaps getting to the point when we enjoy, or at least accept, not knowing – we could discard anxiety.  Milton Glaser and Rebecca Solnit both offer that perspective:

 ‘Graphic designer Milton Glaser thinks that being uncertain is a good way to be.  “Certainty is preposterous,” says Milton Glaser. “Fundamentally, one cannot be certain about anything.” Glaser, who doesn’t shy away from speaking plainly, prefers a mindset that embraces ambiguity. For the 86-year-old, this is “a basic tool for perceiving reality” — and a driving force throughout his storied career.’

Rebecca Solnit, in her inspiring and wonderful essay, Hope in the Dark feels similarly, saying:

‘‘Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and in that spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.’

So, what could we do to accept ambiguity/uncertainty anxiety (beyond learning to do stuff on the numbered lists above – if we think these are both do-able and useful)?  The suggestions made by Robert Leahy, Director of The American Institute for Cognitive Therapy NYC, in an article  Accepting Anxiety are helpful, because they provoke thought:

  • First, ask yourself “What are the advantages in accepting some reasonable uncertainty?”
  • Second, ask yourself “What uncertainty do you already accept?”
  • Third, ask yourself “Third, do you know anyone who has absolute certainty?”
  • Fourth, flood yourself with uncertainty.

He discusses each of these, making the point that, ‘You can remind yourself that uncertainty is inevitable and that accepting uncertainty allows you to live your life more fully.’

These approaches of seeing uncertainty as helpful, may not wash in organisations where people are looking for the answer to ‘How do we fix ambiguity anxiety?’  Or, in organisations where there’s an assumption that ‘Leaders must provide clarity so that work assignments and goals are not as ambiguous as the environment.’

But because we are living in the VUCA world maybe it’s time to move away from a traditional response of trying to fix what appears to be an issue and try a different approach of seeing the opportunity and value in it.

Another approach to ambiguity anxiety is a project management one, described in ‘Characterizing unknown unknowns’.  The authors of the paper provide and talk through a model that ‘helps identify what had been believed to be unidentifiable or unimaginable risks. Finding more unknown unknowns means converting them to known unknowns so that they become manageable using project risk management’. Following their detailed method, you might be able to mitigate the risk of people getting ambiguity anxiety in the first place.

What’s your view of ambiguity anxiety?  Should we embrace it as an opportunity, see it as a risk to be managed, or take another view of it?   Let me know.

Image:  Spaces of Uncertainty


2 thoughts on “Ambiguity anxiety”

  1. Naomi – I love this post. I think you are spot on in your observations. I have had an inherent skepticism about all of the VUCA work that I’ve seen – for reasons that I couldn’t really put my finger on. But you put words to my skepticism in this post. The guidance associated does not provide a revelation to me of any special kind, and is also not very manageable. It is, indeed, the anxiety that seems to really be testing people’s resilience, endurance, and thinking. I am working with more and more people who are either paralyzed in their thinking or spiraling in so many directions that they cannot find clarity and a way forward. I see a direct connect between this ambiguity anxiety you describe and those reactions I am seeing that are becoming far more prominent. Project Management is highly valued in my org – so approaching it using some of those risk management techniques could be useful. I also think helping people leverage the quality of Optimism could help. Simply setting your sights on what good could come from an ambiguous moment, rather than be paralyzed by the alternative, could be a productive way to move through it together. Some of the “endurance training” concepts from The Corporate Athlete body of work also come to mind. We cannot always sprint our way through ambiguity. Might need to pace our way through it more like a marathon requires.

  2. Thanks Naomi for giving this a go. I do think ambiguity anxiety is more appropriate than resistance.

    How ironic is it that the tips for dealing with ambiguity are so ambiguous.
    I like the idea of dancing with ambiguity, but I know that’s not very helpful either. But yes, we can be more friendly with it.
    In CSC, our mantra these days is to ride the waves of uncertainty, and to get better at surfing. I think it helps everyone very used to the idea.
    Thanks again.

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