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Developing your Ambiguity Tolerance as a Leader in the Post-vaccine World

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While the roll-out of the vaccine has given individuals and the nation a roadmap out of the pandemic, there is still vast uncertainty about what life will look like post-vaccine. This uncertainty naturally triggers anxiety. This anxiety can cause several natural responses – such as avoiding thinking about life after the pandemic, feelings of stress/anger or a mental shut-down where we get on with the motions of life without really being present in them. When anxiety is triggered, it impairs our short term memory, reduces the amount of information we can pay attention to and generally makes us more irritable – none of which are conducive to innovation or leading change. Anxiety is an entirely predictable and understandable response to uncertainty/ambiguity. However, another option is to use the current uncertainty to develop the ‘muscle’ of Ambiguity Tolerance.

Ambiguity tolerance is the study of cognitive psychological reactions to ambiguous stimuli. This tolerance can be framed by the amount of anxiety such ambiguity creates for the individual. However, it must be stressed that this pandemic is not an ordinary level of ambiguity – not feeling anxious or ‘stressed’ during a global pandemic that upends so much of our lives would be a highly unusual psychological reaction.

So practising Ambiguity Tolerance during a pandemic is a tough place to start but likely to be very useful in developing our ability in less dramatic future situations such as a change in organisational strategy or change in life circumstances like redundancy.

A key aspect of developing Ambiguity Tolerance is to activate a more curious mindset in ourselves. It activates the reward circuitry in our brains, which feels positive and rewarding to us. It can increase the likelihood that we will spot and embrace emerging opportunities. Curiosity can be practised – here is how.

Explore the unexpected

As humans, it is thought that we have two systems of thinking, the automatic System 1 thinking and the slower, more conscious thinking that is System 2 thinking (Kahnerman and Tversky, 2000). Most of our day-to-day thinking sits in System 1. However, when unexpected things happen, it activates our System 2 thinking. When things at work activate our System 2 thinking, e.g. something surprises us, it can be a good time to get curious. This usually means it is unexpected, i.e. something has changed, or we have hit on a complex problem. Often complex problems are high-value problems.

Look for patterns

Humans are generally pretty good at identifying patterns in their environment (Mattson, 2014). Generating insight from those patterns is definitely System 2 thinking; it requires dedicated mental effort. In the post-vaccine world, new patterns will be emerging that have real consequences for us all. To be at the forefront of identifying those patterns, you need to get curious and look for them. Ideally exploring the patterns and the testing and ‘so what’ thinking that follows with colleagues.

Ask questions

Being curious means asking a lot of questions. If something surprises you or is unexpected, then seek more information. Say your client or customer responded in a way that surprised you; it was not as you had predicted. That can be a trigger to explore why what has changed. What do they need now that they didn’t need before? These questions and interrogations will encourage creative thinking, foster more curiosity, and may bring to light certain opportunities that you hadn’t noticed before.

Depersonalise your experience

One of the best ways to shift to curiosity rather than anxiety is to depersonalise your experience. Try not to take change personally, especially when we are in a paradigm-shifting moment in history. Notice the trends or events you are seeing without shifting into criticism of yourself or others. Aim to remain non-judgemental and exploratory and encourage others to do the same. This will lessen that chance of you and others triggering a desire in yourselves to return to status quo thinking of no-problem, no-change.

Collaborate with others

Actively encouraging collaboration can boost wellbeing, creativity and self-esteem, as well as identify new business opportunities. Data from the 2008 recession shows that professional service firm partners that collaborated across practice groups saw relatively little downturn during the recession compared with partners who didn’t collaborate with peers. When people feel they are a part of something bigger, they invest more in sustaining and growing it. Collaboration is one way to foster that feeling. That feeling will support greater curiosity and Ambiguity Tolerance which may be just what is needed to identify and mobilise the growth opportunities of the post-vaccine/post-pandemic world.

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