Ambiguity: Leaders Can’t Predict the Future

Maybe. Maybe not.  Who knows? The economy is getting better. Sort of.  But, maybe not.  Wouldn’t it be nice to know what’s going to happen?  Wouldn’t it be nice if your organization’s leaders could see into the future and map out sure-fire strategies for making sure the company stays profitable for a long, long time?  But, no one can do that and no amount of leadership training can teach you to foretell the future. We can collect and analyze data, consult actuarial tables, conduct surveys, and evaluate options, but we never know if our chosen actions will produce the results we want. Every day, we must live with uncertainty. Ambiguity is a fact of life at home, and at work.

An exaggerated need for certainty can cause all kinds of problems in an organization. In a misguided attempt to reduce uncertainty, managers can impose too many restrictions, create unnecessary paperwork, demand too many sign-offs, and hold too many meetings. This kind of thing can drive team members crazy. Taken to its extreme, it is immobilizing. No one gets anything done. Many industries have units where a high level of certainty is important. I worked with a nuclear power plant for several years. In the control room and the area around the reactor itself, certainty is rightly valued. The margin for error is small and the consequences for mistakes are high. Vagueness is not, and should not, be tolerated. There are procedures that need to be followed to the letter. Everyone understands and gladly accepts this. On the other hand, the same kind of thinking tends to spread to every aspect of the business. Trying to schedule a room for a training workshop required a mind-numbing array of requisitions, and permissions. Changing a minor procedure in their performance evaluation process took months of meetings, requests, evaluations, and begging. An effective leader knows when it is important to be sure and when decisions need to be made with less certainty.

I believe that one of the reasons technical people sometimes have difficulty dealing with people and relationships, what we often call “soft” skills, is because of greater ambiguity. Human emotions, intentions, and motives cannot be codified in the same way that a manufacturing process, a blueprint, or a spread sheet can. There is more room for interpretation. Engineers and accountants are uncomfortable with this (You could argue, though, that part of our current economic problems stem from “over-interpretation” of accounting data.). They favor concrete, testable outcomes. The overwhelming majority of communication about human relationships is transmitted through nonverbal channels, gestures, body movements, eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice, and so on. These cues, while extremely important, are subject to error in interpretation. Their meaning can vary substantially depending on the receiver, the environment, the circumstances, time of day, etc. There is a lot of ambiguity inherent in all dealings with people. Since one of the most important roles of a leader is to build and maintain relationships, the ability to deal with uncertainty in all human communication is very important.

manager decisions type skills leadership listeningTolerance for ambiguity is a trait that has been studied by psychologists who have found that it correlates with such important leadership traits as: creativity, resilience, openness to diversity, intercultural competence, effective risk-taking and others. The manager who cannot make decisions until she or he has “all of the information” will be paralyzed in today’s complex, fast-moving business world. Having a high tolerance for ambiguity means that a leader can move forward to make plans and decisions based on incomplete data, even conflicting data. This leader has more confidence that good decisions will produce good results over time even if some of them don’t work very well in the short term. This leader will make good guesses about how things are and how things will work out. It also means the leader will be better at the all-important job of building trust and increasing teamwork. Some people just seem to be better at this than others but it is also an attribute that can be improved. Certain skills can help.

•    Listening. The better your listening skills, the more likely it is that you will consistently make good decisions. It is one way to reduce uncertainty and ambiguity. If you stay “tuned-in” to those around you (team members, colleagues, leaders, customers), you have a different kind of data at your disposal. A better understanding of the needs of the people in those important relationships can boost your confidence that any decision you make will be, at least, tolerated, even if it isn’t always perfect. When people believe that they have been listened to, they are more likely to support you when it is important. If you make a mistake, they are more likely to help you correct it. The skill called Active Listening encourages the listener to test his or her assumptions before drawing conclusions. Participants in leadership training are often surprised to learn that many of the assumptions (guesses) that they typically make about other people are not true. Learning and practicing this important skill can do much to reduce uncertainty and increase one’s confidence in taking action when needed.

•    Work/life balance. If your life is good in general, you will perform better as a leader. Little uncertainties (even big ones) won’t bother you as much. If you have satisfying relationships at home, ambiguity at work won’t overwhelm you. If you are interested in other things, you can handle the tension if the upcoming financial report or sales forecast is a little vague. Many of the communication skills taught in good leadership training workshops will also help participants deal more effectively with their relationships at home. A more well-rounded, complete person will almost always make a better leader.

•    Transparency. Learn to self disclose a little more. The more open you are with others, the more open they will be with you. That tends to create a more supportive environment in which you can count on the important relationships you need to be successful. It also cuts down on the number of things you have to remember. Fewer secrets! Less guesswork for those around you! If you are skilled at being clear about your needs, people are more likely to take those needs into account when they make decisions. That gives you a little less to worry about. Effective leadership training often teaches useful ways to self disclose using I-Language and I-Messages rather than the more provocative you-messages that managers sometimes depend on.

•    Win/win. Commit to finding win/win solutions to conflicts. If your colleagues and team members are confident that disagreements won’t result in punitive outcomes, they will be more open and honest. You will have a more accurate picture of any given situation. People won’t be working against you because they know that when you don’t see eye-to-eye, you will look for equitable, mutually satisfying solutions and that they will be a part of the process. Such problem solving methods are frequently a central part of many leadership training programs.

•    Make fewer assumptions. Stop guessing, especially about people’s motives and intentions. When you do make assumptions, test them. Check them out with the people you are guessing about. Learn to deal more directly with your observations rather than labels, inferences and judgments. Over use of labels can lead to a host of problems that tend to muddy the water rather than bringing more clarity. Thinking of someone as “lazy” (or actually calling them “lazy”) is very different than making note of how much work the person gets done in an hour. It is also much less precise. The relationship between the number of labels you use and the degree of uncertainty in the team is strongly related. Fewer labels equals greater clarity and understanding.

None of us has a crystal ball. We are not fortunetellers. We cannot read minds. We do not have access to the inner thoughts, motives, and intentions of those around us. We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, much less next year or next decade. That does not mean we should not think about the future or develop a vision of how we want it to be. That does not mean we should not make an effort to understand more fully how our team members feel about their work, about the company, or about you. But, it does mean that you should be prepared to “let it go” if you cannot understand every detail. The most successful leadership training will help you learn some of the communication skills that will allow you to deal more effectively with ambiguity. Will that make you a better leader? I predict it will.

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