Working with Ambiguity at Work

Leading during uncertain business conditions” and “tolerating ambiguity” are explicitly-sought skills in Silicon Valley position descriptions.
These competencies are crucial to navigate frequent, sometimes surprising restructurings and layoffs.

Rolf Wank

Rolf Wank

In contrast, employees outside the U.S. enjoy greater job certainty and worker protection in some countries, as outlined in Ruhr-Universität Bochum researcher Rolf Wank’s survey of typical German employment relationships .

He summarized “work-arounds” to Gremany’s current system that might require employees to develop skills in working with more ambiguous employment agreements.

Frank Shipper

Frank Shipper

Tolerance for Ambiguity has been measured in a scale developed by Frank Shipper of Salisbury University, adapted from earlier work by Stanley Budner, then of New York State Psychiatric Institute.
Similarly, David Wilkinson of Oxford drew on his background in UK military and police organizations to propose Modes of Leadership based on varying developmental, perceptual, and cognitive styles of ambiguity tolerance:

  • Mode One – Technical Leaders manage ambiguity by ignoring, denying, or creating premature, inaccurate or false “certainty”
    They tend to be risk averse and are more directive in leading others
  • Mode Two – Cooperative Leaders seek to “disambiguate uncertainty” and build teams to mitigate risk
  • Mode Three – Collaborative Leaders prefer consensual alignment among team values and execution goals through explicit team discussion
  • Mode Four – Generative Leaders use ambiguity to find opportunity by drawing on “emotional resilience” and continuous learning.
David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson

In 2008, Wilkinson began investigating two additional leadership modes for inclusion in this framework.
He also posited an “ambiguity continuum” among risk, ambiguity, vagueness, uncertainty and chaos.

Creative scientists and artists have long understood the importance of the ambiguous “incubation” period when solutions germinate.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein, known for his breakthrough insights in physics, argued for imagining solutions when the present situation is unclear:

°         Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere

°         Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions

°         Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create

Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn

Painter Richard Diebenkorn of UCLA echoed Einstein’s sentiment in several entries in Notes to Myself on Beginning a Painting, in which he coached himself to risk, tolerate uncertainty, and persist in the search for solutions: 

°         Attempt (sic) what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.

°         Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke

The spirit of Diebenkorn’s advice to himself was codified decades earlier by poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke in his oft-quoted Letters to a Young Poet.

…Try to love the questions themselves…
Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them….
Someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Both creative artists and business leaders recognize the crucial importance of working with and through ambiguous conditions to produce breakthrough solutions.

°         What approaches help you tolerate ambiguity?
°         How can ambiguity tolerance be increased?

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©Kathryn Welds

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Working with Ambiguity at Work

  1. David Wilkinson

    Hi Kathryn,
    You final quote from Rainer Maria Rilke is apposite and really sums the situation up. Sadly with the perceived need for speed many business leaders feel the need to act rather than observe in complex and ambiguous situations. Of course many don’t even see ambiguity in the first place which is a real problem, particularly with politicians. Nice post.
    David

    Reply

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