Ambiguity and Uncertainty

Posted: 22nd May 2019

How to avoid settling for the best of a bad job and use the opportunity to make better business decisions and retain control.

In the UK at least, the issue of Brexit is, for many, providing a dark background to the lovely weather we’ve recently enjoyed. People are struggling to even listen to the debate anymore because the seemingly intractable problems and demands of different parties are proving harder to resolve than perhaps anyone could ever have imagined.

I am noticing an interesting set of reactions to this – for some people, this impasse is causing intense anger and a feeling of having been let down by those in power; for others, sheer despair is the overwhelming emotion.

What is also happening more recently though, especially as time ‘runs out’, is an increasing readiness to accept a compromise – a change of mind, if you will, an agreement to the best of a bad lot. I see this in both the political parties and the populace. A sense of let’s just get something agreed and then we can all move on?

The outcome might not be what anyone actually wants but at least it brings it all to a close.

In organisational life, imagine how dangerous it could be to simply accept a solution because it is just that – it’s one solution and ‘we need to be taking some action.’
It might not necessarily be the right solution, but it’s one that we could agree to and by doing so, at least we eliminate all the uncertainty and conclude all the endless talking and deciding.

Why do we do this?

  • We know from the excellent work of Teresa Amabile (a Baker Foundation Professor at Harvard Business School) that humans like making progress.
  • Humans like certainty. As humans we seek to understand, predict and control – it makes us feel safer.
  • Humans avoid anxiety. Uncertainty and ambiguity can in some cases fuel anxiety and depression in humans and so people are motivated to reduce these states in order to feel better.
  • Humans like action. When someone takes an action – sometimes any action – we start to feel better and we become assured that the problems will start to be tackled, and thereby potentially be resolved.

What we don’t like is a lack of clarity, the threat of inconsistency and a lack of a plan.

For a long time, leaders have defined success by taking decisive action, often formulated behind closed doors in their top team meetings and delivered with an at times, unrealistic set of promises about how the action would improve things. So, they tell themselves and everyone else that their action is a sign of them providing leadership and they make plans accordingly. These quick, reactive responses can and often do prove fatal in the end.

This phenomenon gets added to when you consider how badly we all now routinely use our brains – technology of course doesn’t help us with this – look at what we have at our disposal? With WAZE we can find out which route to take; Trip Advisor tells us which hotel or restaurant to book; with Google we can look up just about anything about anything we need to know.

However, I believe that leaders have a great responsibility to hold off on the mad dash to a solution – to do so try to balance action with the ten characteristics below.

10 Leadership Steps Which Could Help Us

  1. Be more optimistic – What opportunities could this change provide you with? Take a more positive view of the potential outcome – this enables a more tolerant and patient mindset.
  2. Pause – create mindful space to think deeply about the purpose you are being required to provide, and the meaning you are potentially providing for your people and your stakeholders.
  3. Act with discipline- Provide a realistic framework within which the dialogue could be handled, communicate this and stick to it.
  4. Enquire- Ask, ask, ask from across as wide a pool as possible both inside and outside your organization – explore where people are coming from with their views, show genuine curiosity in alternate views.
  5. Genuinely listen – allow your mind to change, and to develop new possibilities – let go of your instinctive biases and your wish to do as you have always done
  6. Practice humility- be truly open to several different possibilities, bravely look at the ones which cause you fear and doubt, and examine your assumptions.
  7. Stay neutral- Suspend judgement- delay for as long as possible, your expression of a positive or a negative opinion – it’s all just data which you can use to good effect later. Remember, your people are watching for your reactions and they could be swayed by these. Be careful.
  8. Increase your awareness- Be open to new experiences – step into the shoes of others, especially those deep within your organization – how do your decisions impact on them? What do they actually need?
  9. Involve others- Bring in new people to help you do this thinking and deciding. Their value is that they’re not like you. This is why diversity matters in any good place. People who are not like you are just as valuable as you are.

You cannot know everything – but you can choose to lead with grace and honour, and in service of your people and community.

All of this of course requires time.

10. Choose to take the time – the one resource that we all bemoan a lack of, and yet it is always possible to choose to spend time on things which really matter.

For leaders, providing a safe route through uncertainty and ambiguity is a thing that really matters.

Give yourself the time to really use your teams to decide well, and to steer the best course by appreciating the power of others and genuinely exercising your humility.