Do you “deal” or “DEAL” with ambiguity?

No doubt! Dealing with ambiguity is critical to being a winner in today’s corporate environment. Every single job description out there, irrespective of the level or expertise asks for the ability to deal with ambiguous situations. It’s a must for your career journey to be successful. Don’t expect things to be black & white with utmost structure and clarity. Not going to happen!

But then….

Dealing with ambiguity as an individual contributor and dealing with ambiguity as a leader of people, I feel are two totally different things. What do you think?

I was providing some offline support to one of my friends to improve his employee appraisal/coaching process for a mid sized business he owns.  He had 2 to 3 levels in his organizational hierarchy/structure and was interviewing people managers of all levels to understand the gaps within his organization. There were 2 questions that caught my attention, well more than the questions the responses, actually.

  1. What is the biggest challenge you face on a day to day basis as a manager?
  2. What is the one thing you as a manager expect your employees can/should do better?

The summary of the survey results for these two questions were unanimous.AMBIGUITY was the answer.

The people managers felt that there were too many ambiguous situations on a daily basis to deal with which was challenging and at the same time they felt that their employees could do a better job dealing with ambiguity. Now, thats interesting. Same answer to both the questions, hmmm! That got me thinking.

I asked my friend to go back and randomly select a few employees and ask them a question about their manager: What is the one thing you think your manager can do better to support you to deliver better results?

I was thrilled with the accuracy of my intuition. Exactly what I was expecting. The majority of the responses were seeking more guidance from their managers in situations of AMBIGUITY.

So here we are:

  • The biggest challenge employees faced in this organization = Too many AMBIGUOUS situations on a daily basis.
  • The one most important thing that the managers felt the employees can do better = Deal with AMBIGUOUS situations independently.
  • The one area where employees wanted more support and help from their manager = More guidance and support during AMBIGUOUS situations

While every individual in today’s corporate world should have the ability and appetite to deal with ambiguous situations and deliver results, I want to challenge the people managers in terms of their approach during ambiguous situations.

  • Is it only the responsibility of your employees to “deal” with ambiguity? (Irrespective of the job level of your employees)
  • Do you have a role to play as a leader in taking the ambiguous situations and giving your folks the high level direction they need?
  • What will happen if the same situation arises in a year from now? Will the employees go through the same learning curve once again?

Imagine if every leader/manager strives to provide clarity to their direct staff during ambiguous situations and strives to answer the question of what and how one would deal if the same situation arises in the future! How unambiguous the corporate world can turn out to be.

I always tell my teams, there are two ways to deal with ambiguity;

  1. Navigate through the ambiguity, let the ambiguity remain BUT focus on the outcome and deliver the results, move on. I will figure this out for now and deliver what is expected and good luck to whom ever is doing this stuff, if the same thing happens 18 months from now.
  2. Navigate through the ambiguity and deliver the desired results while striving to apply a structure in place to avoid the ambiguity if the same situation arises again, say 18 months from now.

One very unfortunate observation is that, there are a lot of experts emerging for the first type outlined above given the pace at which corporations are undergoing changes and expecting short term outcome. Navigate through very ambiguous situations, focus on the outcome and move on. BUT very little or no focus on the second type. (ambiguity shielding).

And thats a perfect spot for every single manager to chime in. Build a culture around ambiguity prevention and ambiguity shielding among your teams. So the focus is to prevent than cure. This could be a game changer in the long run.

So a couple of parting thoughts for people managers.

  1. Before you give your employees feedback about dealing with ambiguous situations, ask yourself what you have done to provide clarity and guidance on the situation (Irrespective of what ever level of employees you are dealing with). Its your job as a manager.
  2. Do you want to build a short term outcome based culture or a culture where every ambiguous situation is navigated carefully to deliver the desired business outcome while future proofing similar ambiguous situations that can arise again.

Let’s not just “deal” with ambiguity, lets “DEAL” with it!

About the Author: For more information, contact Balakarthik Venkataramanan at LinkedIn Profile:

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