7 Ways to Help Your Team Deal with Ambiguity

Dealing with ambiguity is a competency quickly pushing its way up on the list of most wanted executive competencies, while simultaneously working its way down as a vital survival skill down the organization chart. Acting with incomplete information, adapting to change, working without complete direction, imagining what’s possible in an uncertain future–these are skills no longer reserved for the executive floor. Every manager and team member will be more effective with greater skill in this arena.

It’s not easy. But, tackling the topic head on will save a lot of wasted time and emotional energy for you and your team, and you’ll prepare your team members for larger roles in the process.

7 Ways to Help Your Team Deal With Ambiguity

“Accepting that the world is full of uncertainty and ambiguity does not and should not stop people from being pretty sure about a lot of things.” – Julian Baggini

1. Understand your Own Tolerance and Reactions

Start with you. If times of uncertainty don’t lead to your shining moments of leadership brilliance, acknowledge that. Find a trusted advisor (it could even be a team member) who finds change and ambiguity exhilarating to help you with your plan. Do your freaking-out in private. In uncertain times, nothing will calm and inspire your team more than your “game on” attitude.

2. Be Crystal Clear on What is Clear

It’s easy to feel like everything is uncertain in times of uncertainty. That’s never true. Be crystal clear on what you do know, what’s not changing, and what your team can count on.

3. Know What You Collectively Know and What You Don’t

Chances are that you and your team, when you put your heads together, know more than you think. Taking time to do this exercise as a team matters. Resist the urge to focus only on what everyone already knows. Write that down, but then add to the list of what each person knows or suspects based on their area of expertise. Then write down what you don’t know, and brainstorm ways to gather more information in that arena.

4. Don’t Waffle

When you make decisions, stop second-guessing them out loud. If you need to change course, do it boldly with strong communication and explanation. Otherwise, keep your boat sailing swiftly in the announced direction.

5. Encourage Risk Taking

Even if you’ve reacted poorly to mistakes before, admit that, and promise support in taking calculated risks. Put in place whatever parameters and checkpoints you need to feel comfortable in your world, but allow space for creativity and brilliant thinking. You need every single brain cell operating on full cylinder at times like these, not censored with fear of making mistakes.

6. Envision Alternative Scenarios

When the future is uncertain, it’s easy to think that “anything could happen.” That’s seldom true. More often the most probable scenarios can be boiled down to two or three. Brainstorm those possibilities and develop contingency plans. This exercise goes a long way in calming minds and spirits, while generating creative possibilities that could actually work across scenarios.

7. Engage Other People and Perspectives

The more people you engage in the solution, the less frightening the problem becomes. Enlist unusual suspects to weigh-in.  Engage some cross-functional collaboration. Benchmark externally. Ask your children (hey, you never know).

Most importantly keep your cool and focus on the possible.

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Posted in Career & Learning, Communication and tagged , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.

8 Comments

  1. Great post, Karin about a topic that all leaders face constantly with our fast-paced global business environment!

    I especially loved: “Be crystal clear on what you do know, what’s not changing, and what your team can count on.” The more clarity the better. This helps everyone get a better understanding of what they can and cannot make assumptions about. And there is a lot of assumptions being made during times of ambiguity.

    I would also add that it is essential to be more empathetic and nurturing during times of ambiguity. When I worked with hospital mergers and dealing with change, it was critical for the managers to listen to concerns and feelings of their teams.

    Thanks!

  2. I like the part of “focus on the possible.”

    Information and situations are fluid.

    Sometimes what we see isn’t what’s real. I call these myths. Then again, myths are 100% true to those who believe them.

    Where do we eventually want to land? What’s our endgame?

    • Thanks, Steve. Yes… thinking of the endgame… vital. Hmmm where have I heard that before 😉

  3. Loved this post, Karin.

    And I loved where you started the discussion—with the leader! Emotional Intelligence is essential if we’re to move forward when faced with ambiguity…and ambiguity is here is stay.

    The first thing we need to thoroughly understand is our own reactions to the unknown when we step into it.

  4. I loved this post, Karin!

    And I loved how you started the discussion—with a look at the leader. Emotional intelligence is essential if we’re to understand how and why we react the way we do when confronted with the unknown.

    A wise leader knows what pushes his/her buttons so they can predict their response.

  5. I agree with you here: “When you make decisions, stop second-guessing them out loud.”

    Rehashing the past is only helpful if done as a deliberate exercise (e.g. lessons learned). Besides that, getting fixated on the past decisions distracts you from moving forward.

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