Dealing with an environment of ambiguity is one of the toughest challenges facing any leader, but it is most perplexing and prevalent in the business world. The essence of ambiguity is uncertainty. And if there is one thing that discombobulates the attitude and performance of a worker, it is uncertainty as to what is expected of them and indecisiveness on the part of the leader. Since the business world is always changing and uncertain, ambiguity is ever-present and in an attempt to counter it, many leaders fall back on the way things have always been done as a type of security blanket. It is a mistake. When leaders attempt to thwart ambiguity in business by acting as though the future will be like the past – and it rarely is – they become victims of even more destructive ambiguity.
Simply monitoring the actions of workers based on what has been deemed acceptable activity will – in the short term – suppress the vagueness of ambiguity, but it comes with a high price. History has proven time and again that a fixed mindset as to the way things should be done is a sure path to decline and failure. In the end, there will be nothing ambiguous about the deterioration of the organization and the failure of the leader.
The reality is that for a leader to be successful, they must have the courage to look past the security of the way things have been done and accept – indeed embrace – the ambiguity of doing what others have been unwilling or not thought to do.
Admittedly that may be easier said than done, but when a leader comes to embrace ambiguity as an opportunity rather than a threat, they can begin to manage it by looking forward rather than back. It is after all the ambiguity of a situation or outcome that offers the opportunity to innovate and create a new approach to the direction and growth of an organization. A static, inflexible environment can abrogate elements of ambiguity, but it does so by constricting creativity and turns potential leaders into no more than mundane managers.
I would suggest that a certain amount of “controlled ambiguity” can also be can be good for workers. When the worker is given a codified rule-book laying out in detail what and how things are to be done, they become nothing more than bored automatons. Any value-added they could bring to the job is suppressed, causing workers to lose interest in the effort, feeling like they are nothing more than clogs in the organization. On the other hand, when the worker is allowed and empowered to offer their ideas and input on dealing with the ambiguity of the future, they become involved and take ownership in the effort.
So what can a leader do to turn ambiguity into opportunity – both for themselves and their followers?
- Leaders should offer a clearly articulated vision of the future they seek to create. Understanding what the leader seeks to achieve and – equally as important – why, significantly reduces ambiguity for followers. This allows them to stop worrying about “what” and concentrate on “how.”
- Leaders need to be reliably consistent in their words and actions. Saying one thing on day and something else the next day is a laboratory for ambiguity. Announcing one plan of action and then not following through fosters an ambiguity that leads to paralysis of action.
- Leaders must be capable of making decisions in the midst of ambiguity; and sticking with them till proven wrong. That’s almost a definition for leadership. Too many leaders wait too long to make a decision, because they are unwilling to make a decision based in the information they have; delaying action while waiting for all the information that never comes. This leaves the followers submerged in ambiguity.
What is important to recognize is that it is the very ambiguity of a situation that creates the opening for a leader to lead. Out of ambiguity a leader is free to search for new ways, explore innovative ideas and involve followers in finding solutions; all actions that can convert ambiguity into opportunity.