Leading in a Time of Ambiguity
Living though a pandemic is shadowed by nearly constant uncertainty. We take three steps forward, two sideways and unfortunately, then three steps backwards. Innovators have been able to pivot and transform their business models to meet the needs of their stakeholders. Retail organizations that have calcified cultures with command-and-control management models have been or are being easily eclipsed by agile competitors.
So, which category characterizes your own organization: are you innovative or is your organization a laggard? The key to getting unstuck during a global health crisis, financial meltdown, social discord– or even in “normal” times – is the ability to lead confidently in a time of ambiguity.
Ambiguity Is Becoming a 24/4 Proposition
Recently mask mandates have returned, in-person events this fall have been moved back to virtual, and Covid cases, particularly for the unvaccinated, are on the rise. The market has responded nervously as recovery forecasts are in jeopardy and individuals committed to resuming some level of normalcy are now reevaluating their plans and decisions.
We may have thought ambiguity was ebbing and giving way to more certain paths ahead, but once again we have learned the need to embrace ambiguity is a constant. And sadly, in many ways ambiguity has accelerated.
“The degree of uncertainty that we can tolerate depends upon our personal or organizational comfort level. Some of us try to avoid uncertainty, some of us tolerate it, but few of us actively embrace it. We can never shrink uncertainty to zero, because the future is always uncertain, but we can reduce it by turning to experts or sleuthing for information we don’t have,” according to Cheryl Strauss Einhorn in the Harvard Business Review.
Defining a vision of success is a lynchpin to mastering leadership in ambiguous times. If you develop a vision of success with the input of your teams you can work backward to developing a plan for success.
International management consultant Korn Ferry adds, “Ambiguity is the norm in any complex organization, but clarity is still possible. It is about purpose, long-term direction, and values. At its simplest, ambiguity is a lack of clarity, which leads to frustration and, in the organizational context, heightened anxiety for leaders and employees. Our challenge as leaders, given this reality, is determining what we can be clear about to enable agile organizational responses.”
Understanding how to navigate ambiguity, when an optimum outcome is a matter of interpretation, puts enormous pressure on leaders, managers, and teams. Personal interpretation is both a strength and a pitfall. Consider whether your personal interpretations are in the interest of your stakeholders or yourself. Einhorn adds, “Our decision will ultimately be a judgment call, based on our values. We have to drill down on what matters to each of us, or to our family, or to our organization. To confront an ambiguous problem, we have to invert our decision-making: Instead of focusing on the problem itself, we need to define what a successful outcome looks like — what is called your “vision of success.”
That sounds pretty straightforward. Defining a vision of success is a lynchpin to mastering leadership in ambiguous times. If you develop a vision of success with the input of your teams you can work backwards to developing a plan for success. In other words, literally visualize what success looks like and then build the pathway to achieving your goals led by that vision, always with the agility to pivot or change direction when necessary. That pathway may represent some very challenging decisions or actions and may fundamentally change areas of your organizations and how it operates. But transformative change is often not easy and achieving success takes hard work and commitment.
Organizational designer Norm Smallwood says, “I’m seeing two types of responses—leaders who are ambiguity absorbers and leaders who are ambiguity amplifiers. Ambiguity absorbers reduce ambiguity for others by setting a clear direction, regardless of their level in the organization. Ambiguity amplifiers make the situation worse by insisting that others wait for someone else to set direction, micro-manage and/or over analyze. Amplifiers stir up resistance or freeze people from taking action.” Leadership makes a difference at all levels: “When there’s uncertainty about what to do and senior executives haven’t yet charted a course, mid-level leaders should not wait for direction. They should make assumptions that lead to a plan of action based on their understanding of what’s best for the business. This allows a team or function to continue to work productively. This is the essence of what it means to be an ambiguity absorber. Making assumptions about what the organization will do allows a mid-level leader to keep people working around a shared agenda during uncertainty,” states Smallwood.
Playbook for Leaders
Author Andrew Blum says, “Research shows that living with a permanent sense of uncertainty creates stress, and over time can even lead to disease in individuals and true dysfunction in organizations. This raises an important question: How can we find clarity in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty? The answer lies in the fundamentals of leadership and looking at things that are in our control. This can be counterintuitive because, as leaders, we tend to want to control everything. The challenge with this instinctual leadership response is that the more variables we deal with and the more we sense things are outside of our control, the more control and safety we seek. The reality here is that this desire for measurement and control often distracts us from the real challenge of finding comfort and productive action in the face of uncertainty. We get caught up in the idea of making uncertainty certain, but this notion puts us in a vicious cycle that has no end.”
A simple matrix on navigating uncertainty.
- Know your intention as distinct from your goals. Intentions are stated as motivational and feelings-based: “Today I intend to make my teams feel valued and meaningful.”
- Understand your own response to ambiguity. Ask yourself: Are you empathetic or dogmatic? Do you assuage fear and anxiety or allow it to permeate contagiously throughout your organization? Are you decisive or do you waver and waffle? Are you a perfectionist or flexible?
- Be aware that you may not be able to provide clarity about everything, however providing no clarity is unacceptable.
- Don’t expect to get your decisions right the first time. Get comfortable with uncertainty, tolerate errors, and don’t take criticism personally. Think incrementally, establish effective feedback loops and practice continually iterating innovations and new ideas.
- A shared purpose of your organization and its values are essential in delivering an effective outcome during ambiguous times. And leading a purpose-driven business helps people cope when times are challenging.
- Clarity about your long-term mission provides stability. That includes clarity about expectations, roles, and responsibilities of the workforce to maintain ballast during uncertainty.
- Always. With authenticity and transparency.
- We cannot control the circumstances of our lives, but we can control how we respond to them. Focus on what you can control and celebrate contributions, innovations, and actionable solutions, large and small.
- Earn respect. You don’t have to be loved by everyone, but you need to be trusted.
- Educate yourself. Be curious. Don’t think you’re the smartest person in the room. Surround yourself with people who think differently. Expand your table and invite an inclusive group of equally curious individuals to explore how to navigate ambiguity
So, let’s jump back to where we started. Ambiguity is going to continue. If an organization waits to take action it will result in staying asleep at the wheel while your competitors speed ahead and innovators upend your business model. Or worse, because of market changes, you may simply slip into irrelevance.