If you type ambiguity in a LinkedIn job search, over 35,000 job ads will show up. I was doing my Master’s in 2012 and I remember that it was common for Management papers to start by claiming that ambiguity and pace were increasing drastically and that the authors contributions — regardless of topic — were key to help teams and organizations cope with that. While I was reading these in 2012, some of them were from 2007, some were from 1993.
Saying that ambiguity is not one of the main byproducts of a highly competitive knowledge-based economy would be like denying that climate change is an issue. Ambiguity is a constant in any modern workplace. That’s a fact. Companies are constantly trying to adapt to unexpected trends that can make or break entire businesses while keeping an eye on long-term disruption. Constant pivots are required whether because of regulatory changes or due to the market providing signals that a great idea from last year is not going to be well received this year. Organizations, teams, and individuals need to have high levels of adaptability and stamina — not to mention psychological safety and learning orientation — to succeed in an unpredictable environment. There’s no alternative.
I didn’t go through those 35,000 ads, but I can bet that most of them include the word ambiguity to express that the job can only be performed by someone that knows how to handle it. In principle, that sounds about right. Again, ambiguity is everywhere and organizations, teams, and individuals need to account for that. Yet, I consider this to be a piece of evidence of a phenomenon I have been observing (either directly or through anecdotes shared by friends and coworkers) for the past few years: I’m seeing companies and managers framing ambiguity as something to be managed by the individual and no one else. It’s almost like ambiguity is to your work what rain is to your commute. It’s not your employer’s or manager’s responsibility to provide you a way to reach the office dry — it’s up to you to adapt and manage that situation. The difference is that ambiguity isn’t rain. Its impact is way bigger than having someone miss work because they’re sick for a couple of days.
By shifting the responsibility to the individual, organizations and managers are ignoring one of their most essential roles: provide a framework that allows a group of strangers to collaborate in order to achieve predefined goals. One can argue that this is a simple issue of cultural fit: maybe those people who are underperforming due to ambiguity should have never been hired in the first place. Yet, I’m not sure that it is possible to maintain organizations staffed only by people who are naturally impervious to ambiguity — those individuals would become highly coveted and expensive. The race for the thick skinned would be like hunting for toilet paper in March 2020.
My hypothesis is that companies which provide a structured way of dealing with ambiguity will outperform those that don’t. Those who do are relieving their members from the burden of dealing with ambiguity on a daily basis and allowing them to focus on the best way to achieve the organization’s goals. I won’t do an amazing job at exhibiting this hypothesis — it’s more of a structured rant — but I’ll at least try to share some of the arguments that led me to it.
Before I start, I feel the need to highlight the distinction between ambiguity and risk as you’re probably saying to yourself “Is it even possible to work on fast-paced, innovative projects without ambiguity? It’s impossible to map everything.” Ambiguity is not knowing where you stand and what’s your position in a given scenario. Risk is knowing that what you’re doing might not be successful as you do not control the odds. Chasing something that we believe to have a decent chance of occurring produces dopamine (i.e., the body’s way to reward itself) and can work as a motivator. This is risk, not ambiguity.
What’s the impact of not managing ambiguity?
Our brains have this little structure called the amygdala. It’s key for memory, decision-making and emotional responses. While the amygdala’s fame is based on its role in aggression, its main areas of expertise are fear and anxiety — it is highly sensitive to unsettling social circumstances. An example given in Sapolsky’s Behave is that of a male monkey that is courting a female monkey and then some guy in a lab coat grabs the female and puts her in a cage with another male monkey. The first male goes bananas. Not out of aggression, but out of anxiety. Being unaware of where we stand triggers our amygdala and drives our anxiety up. The higher the anxiety levels, the more prone the individual is to be in a survival mode or reactive. In that mindset, people will focus on keeping themselves safe and cutting their losses — they do whatever they can to counter that unpleasant dissonance.
I’ve heard countless experienced managers counter this sort of argument by stating that just because this is applicable in clinical or experimental settings, it doesn’t mean it’s true in the workplace. There’s a point to it. Last time I checked (i.e., a couple years ago, there wasn’t much evidence on this). Actually, one of the most cited articles on the topic proposed the opposite. Adam Grant proposed that ambiguity could actually drive proactivity through mechanisms like job crafting (i.e., when you adapt your work to suit your needs and not the other way around).
I’m no Adam Grant but I found some evidence that contradicts this theory. I tortured hundreds of software engineers and forced them to fill out a very boring and long questionnaire — if you’re reading this, sorry that I never got back to you, life takes unexpected turns and I’m still learning how to manage those. The results showed that ambiguity has no relationship with proactivity.
Actually, it contributes to defensiveness (directly and through its negative impact on psychological safety). Defensive behaviors are when we’re more focused on not doing our job (e.g., we postpone tasks we don’t like, we don’t deviate from our way of doing things), worried about not being blamed (e.g., we document everything, we avoid making decisions without sharing the responsibility), and resistant to change (e.g., we are territorial). The more defensive people become, the less interested they are in the company’s or the team’s objectives — unless those objectives are aligned with their own survival. That’s an agency problem on steroids and will surely impact the individual’s, their team’s and the overall organization’s productivity.
Why isn’t ambiguity being managed?
There are several reasons why ambiguity isn’t being managed and those might be related to individual leadership styles, organizational culture and climate, and lack of awareness among others. I’d like to focus on what I believe to be one of the most important antecedents of this issue and propose yet another hypothesis: leaders are not able to manage the paradox of being expected to empower their teams while maintaining the required decisiveness to keep the ball rolling.
In the past, work environments were marked by high power distance. This means that the boss knows what’s best and you should just do what they say. With a shift to a knowledge-based economy, many leaders and researchers started to conclude that collaborative work environments with open communication channels promote creativity and productivity (and decrease the chances of being a victim of drastic incidents like the Challenger accident in 1986). However, like most management trends, this was mostly applied through token initiatives rather than the embodiment of a new way of working. Management consultants started to recommend listening to employees before implementing any structural changes — not necessarily because their input was appreciated but to at least give them the impression that everybody was heard.
Do not get me wrong. I’m glad we started to realize that good ideas come from everywhere but we disregarded the selection process that needs to be applied to those ideas. In essence, anyone should be able to pitch in, but it needs to be clear who makes the final call. One of the most famous frameworks for coming up with new products and solutions is the Double Diamond model. I’m not an expert on it but it seems like a way to map out the environment (maximize scope), determine which opportunities to pursue (minimize scope), generate ideas on how to pursue those opportunities (maximize scope) and pick the one that seems the best for that scenario (minimize scope).
Maximizing scope of the conversation is not an issue. Everybody that’s somewhat engaged has at least a couple of ideas to add to the discussion. Narrowing it down is usually the issue. It requires leadership to align all those ideas with the team’s vision and pick the one which seems to be the best bet. However, it seems that the trauma generated by the high power distance left leaders with the impression that making any decision that is not based on a strong or even total consensus is a bad thing. Again, we’re back on reactivity and ensuring no one can start saying that you’re some sort of corporate dictator.
Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve addresses this issue somehow. Leaders who are not able to define themselves and self-differentiate become reactive. They stop defining their mission, vision, and desired culture. They focus on creating a balance that pleases the loudest voices. They focus so much on those voices that they eventually transfer their responsibility to someone else. They develop an external locus of control — Darren Gold’s Master Your Code provides a very good layman’s version of how this impacts leaders. Taken to an extreme, leaders will start blaming their teams for any lack of progress as they’re the ones not able to reach a consensus.
The shift from high power distance to collaborative environments was so drastic that it skipped a position of balance: let’s hear everyone who has anything to say about this, but let’s not forget whose responsibility it is to make and own decisions. If you combine ambiguity-driven defensive behaviors with a culture of consensus you get leaders who deflect so much that they end up making themselves redundant. Yet, that redundancy is not completely acknowledged and teams still expect their leaders to set a course for them. This dissonance creates a power vacuum where each side is expecting the other one to lead the way. This Mexican standoff makes it impossible to manage ambiguity. The alternative is to start writing job ads for people who are used to “ambiguous, fast-paced environments”.
How to manage ambiguity?
With courage. Now, if I were back at trying to come up with content for an academic article, I’d have to be way more precise with my words (e.g., picking up a specific personality trait, behavior or process that determines whether or not ambiguity is not having an impact on teams). Yet, whatever formulation I’d come up with, it would never fully reflect what I believe to be the main solution for this issue. So, let’s go with courage. Courage to do three things: set up clear expectations on how they’ll collaborate with the team, define and hold a vision, and commit to the course they set. Leaders need the courage to set up a way of coming up to decisions and own the final output.
Leaders need the courage to be clear about the relationship they want to have with their team. In David Epstein’s Range, there’s a very good example of this. When Rex Gevden became the CEO of BWX Technologies he made sure to let his reports know that he expected disagreements during any decision making process — as it was a sign of organizational health — but that once the decision was made, he expected compliance and support. He also told them that he’d fully respect their decision making authority, yet for the purpose of gathering information, he’d bypass them and talk directly to anyone in the company. This decreases ambiguity as everybody knows who the decision maker is and what to expect from them.
On top of clear relationships, leaders need to have a vision. This is one of those overused words and depending on who you’re talking to, you’ll get a different definition. Regardless of definitions, leaders need to establish what they want to achieve and they need to make it clear to their teams. What’s the purpose? What’s the goal? Whenever it’s time to make a decision, the main question is “Is this in line with the vision?” When something unexpected occurs, having a vision allows you to ask yourself the question “Does this impact the path I defined towards my vision? If so, how?” Depending on the answer, you can start a discussion on what needs to be done to get back on track.
If you do not have a vision, you’ll react to whatever is happening regardless of its impact. You may even start focusing more on urgency rather than on the actual goal of your team and organization. When that’s the case, leaders are constantly in a crisis mode asking their teams to come up with a way to address any blip in the radar regardless of its relevance. A leader and their vision serve as a filter to whether or not a team should be concerned about an ambiguous situation. If there’s no vision or if the leader simply delegates that role to the team, then ambiguity will hit the team directly. Considering that ambiguity is a constant, the team will be constantly trying to address changes in the environment, rather than focusing on coming up with ways to reach the vision. In short, having a vision decreases ambiguity by framing the discussion within a limited scope.
Finally, leaders need courage to stick with the decisions they made. Of course, the world will throw you curveballs (e.g., competitors will start working on something that might disrupt the market and you have no plan to deal with it). But that’s where both the vision and processes come in. I do not believe there are silver bullets when it comes to this. Different leadership styles and contexts will require different types of processes and that’s fine as long as you create some predictability. Come up with an idea, develop it, test it and assess it (or whatever framework you’d like to use for this purpose). On top of that, the process should have a time frame — this will drastically change depending on the industry as it’s easier to pivot while building an app than it is when building a spacecraft. The time frame will determine your flexibility and nimbleness.
Most people do this, I know. However, they fail to do the simplest part: commit to it. If you have a monthly development/release cycle for your SaaS, you don’t change the scope two days after you start the development. Honor your decision, let it see the light of day and assess if it works or not. Of course there are emergencies (e.g., grave mistake in the requirements) and those will always need to be addressed. The issue is that in a reactive environment (one where ambiguity is not managed) everything will be an emergency and your team’s efforts will constantly be disrupted. Commitment to a decision and a time frame minimize ambiguity as individuals know that for that period of time they only need to focus on honoring that commitment — there will be time to course correct afterwards.
It takes courage to be transparent about what you expect from others. It takes courage to bet on a vision. It takes courage to trust the process.
Notes about my texts:
- Goal #1: Keep track of my thought processes so I can make fun of myself some years from now
- Goal #2: Increasing the chances of finding people who are interested in discussing these topics and making new connections
- Texts are based on a combination of personal and professional experiences, both my own and of those around me — they do not reflect my current role or team
- I do not speak on behalf of any of my current or previous employers, views are my own