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Karin’s Leadership Articles

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. Here are 7 ways to help your team thrive in the unknown and with incomplete information.

What is Ambiguity?

A Critical Management Competency

Acting and making decisions with incomplete information, adapting to change, working without complete direction, imagining what’s possible in an uncertain future, knowing when to change your mind; these are critical competencies no longer reserved for the executive floor.

It’s not an easy task. 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.

Of course, it’s more important than ever to really connect at a human level during ambiguous times. You need to understand what your team is thinking and feeling, and they need to know that you genuinely have their best interests at heart.

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. In 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. Try to keep your fear in private. Nothing will calm and inspire your team more than your “game on” attitude in uncertain times.

2. Be Crystal Clear on What is Clear

It’s easy to feel like everything is uncertain in times of uncertainty. That’s not true. Be crystal clear on what you know, what’s not changing, and what your team can count on.

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

The chances are that when you put your heads together, you 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 (Or if you do need to change direction, do it boldly)

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.

If you need to change your mind, here’s how to change direction to improve your results without frustrating your team.

dealing with ambiguity

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. It would help if you had every single brain cell operating on the 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

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help your team deal with ambiguity – get the executive strategy guide

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. You could even ask your children (you never know).

Most importantly, keep your cool and focus on the possible.

Are you looking for training and leadership development to take your organization to the next level and deal with ambiguity? We can help. Give us a call at 443/750-1249 or reach out to us at [email protected] to learn more.

Your turn. What are your favorite tips for dealing with ambiguity?

Looking to build a great culture, while helping your team learn through ambiguity and change? Download the first chapter to Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates for FREE here.Courageous Cultures

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Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

19 Comments

  1. Terri Klass

    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!

    Reply
    • Karin Hurt

      Terri, Oh yes. Such an important addition. Empathy and understanding. Amen.

      Reply
  2. Steve Borek

    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?

    Reply
    • Karin Hurt

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

      Reply
  3. LaRae QuyL

    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.

    Reply
  4. LaRae Quy

    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.

    Reply
    • Karin Hurt

      Thanks, LaRae. I totally agree. Our emotions are contagious.

      Reply
  5. Bruce Harpham

    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.

    Reply
  6. David Dye

    Helping teams deal with ambiguity continues to resonate with leaders. Recently, we’ve been finding one of the crippling areas of ambiguity to be team communication – with the rapid pace of email, instant messengers, text, and voice mails, many teams struggle with their expectations of one another. That’s an unneeded source of stress – life is ambiguous enough.

    Reply
    • Karin Hurt

      David, so true! That’s a great addition. It’s been really rewarding to see how fast business results can improve when teams pay attention to what and how they’re communicating, and check for understanding to ensure that the rest of team is picking up what they’re putting down.

      Reply
  7. Laura

    I think this message is so important. While it is a simple concept we all face ambiguity all of the time. Asking questions to create clarity is so important, and might help your colleagues as well. Various communications styles makes it even more challenging. Karin, what advice do you give teams that are facing ambiguity and their communications styles are really challenging their ability to create clarity?

    Reply
    • Karin Hurt

      Laura, I so agree that asking questions is key! I’m amazed every time we do an own the U.G.L.Y. exercise with our clients… how quickly clarity comes. I’mreally excited about some strategic work we are doing later this month with an executive team at the very top of the company who has invited their 20 most senior leaders to work with us to spend time on 4 very strategic questions about the future.

      When it comes to dealing with different communication styles, I’m a big believer in making the invisible visible (meaning learn about the styles on the team and talk about them). Of course, this is easiest to do before the stuff starts to hit the fan 😉

      As business and life partners, David and I have very different personalities and as our business continues to grow, we are constantly dealing with big decisions amidst a lot of ambiguity. We have learned how each of us approaches such challenges, and are getting better and articulating what we are hearing the other person saying to show we really get it, before offering another view.

      I’m loving all these great insights. Who else has something to add?

      Reply
  8. https://quartsea93.bladejournal.com/

    I love your stuff
    Hey, Been reading your site for a while just wanted to say I
    enjoy it. Honestly this is probably the most helpful thing I’ve read,
    thnks a lot. From cold Scotland

    Reply
    • Karin Hurt

      Thanks so very much! We really appreciate you taking the time to let us know. Greetings from cold Washington, DC 😉

      Reply
  9. Paula Reid

    I enjoyed this post very much Karin, thank you from ‘getting warmer now’ UK! I especially liked that you kept it real and practical – so many of these discussions are conceptual or philosophical. I run a business about ‘Adventure Psychology’ and our strapline is ‘Going Knowingly into the Unknown’ (see http://www.adventure-psychology.com). We say that ‘Going Knowingly is in two parts – 1) choosing to ‘go’ in the first instance (i.e. decision making whether to do x, y, or z, and then 2) preparedness – doing all you can to prepare for the uncertainties and challenges ahead on the journey / adventure so that you are more able and your brain is more available when you get into the thick of things. One thing we talk about a lot is ‘anticipatory thinking’, and for ambiguity – sensemaking, which helps with the psychology of uncertainty too…

    Reply
    • Karin Hurt

      Thanks so much, Paula. You offer some incredible advice here. I love that “go knowingly into the unknown.” It would be fun to connect sometime and hear more about what you are doing. It sounds great.

      Reply

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