Managing Ambiguity

How are you at dealing with ambiguity? When you see a risk that might impact your project, but it’s tough to predict, how do you handle it? Do you respond well when you know a reorg is planned, but aren’t sure how all the work will still get completed? Ambiguity is a part of everyday life, whether in the workplace, in your personal business, or even your life in general. Things come up, and the picture isn’t clear. We aren’t sure what the impacts will be. Sometimes we aren’t even sure if the “thing” will even happen. 

When you face ambiguity, do you try to force it to resolution? If you find yourself constantly planning and re-planning, or frequently asking people how everything is going to work out, then perhaps you need to learn to effectively manage ambiguous situations.

Understand the facts. During ambiguous situations, oftentimes speculation creeps in, and things get exaggerated. People will begin talking about how everything is going to fall apart, or project costs will skyrocket, or it will be impossible to stay on schedule if we have to face this undefined event. That type of discussion is unproductive and creates an environment of worry. People spend more time talking about the potential problem than doing anything about it. Lay out the facts, and use those to base your strategy.

Plan reasonably. Take what you know, and plan reasonably. Some people have a tendency to build as many contingency plans as possible. There is a point where the return on this type of planning is worth less than the time invested. Take the facts, apply it to your situation, and think through the impacts. If there aren’t many facts, and things are pretty foggy, don’t change anything; just understand that change might need to happen.

Watch and wait. Once you understand how you will respond to the situation, watch and wait. Don’t agonize over the unknown. Watch for the unknown to materialize more. As it does, you will know the proper timing to react to the situation.

Stay positive. Ambiguity tends to cause people stress. You can help your team by staying positive. Keep people focused on their work and the knowns. Encourage them by letting them know you will all get through it as a team.

If we approach ambiguity positively and strategically, it can be a lot easier to navigate. Understanding we should control what we can control and let go of what we cannot can significantly reduce the stress ambiguity causes. I’m not advocating ignoring ambiguity – just suggesting that there is a point where nothing is gained by the attention we give it. Understand the situation, plan what you can, and then wait and respond appropriately.

Jana Axline is president and leadership coach at Axline Solutions. Through her leadership musings she hopes to inspire audiences to grow as leaders and ultimately achieve who they were created to be. For more information visit Axline Solutions.

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