#393  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 3          March 1999

Coping with Ambiguity
by Carolyn Deasy Pizzuto

Ms. Pizzuto is founder and managing director of CDA Management Consulting, Inc. (Middleburg Heights, OH; carpizcda@aol.com;  440-891-9166), an organization specializing in productivity gains through creative workplace changes.  She writes and speaks on the topics of leadership, teamwork, change, and shared values.

Today’s management challenge is to avoid typical platitudes such as “Change is the only constant,” and to focus on actually being productive in a changing environment.  This type of environment puts people in an ambiguous state, such as:  being in a situation that is inexplicable, doubtful or obscure, or being in a situation in which there are two or more possible outcomes.  It’s an uncomfortable state; it can hinder productivity dramatically.  So the goal is to understand how to cope with ambiguity; how to be productive while it exists, and how to reduce it whenever possible.


A key step in coping with ambiguity is to understand the root causes that create the feeling.  Some are internal and some are external.  A manager can become stymied by risk aversion, linear thinking, reliance on past, procrastination, and personal stress.  On the other hand the most common external causes are the speed of change and the amount of available information.

People create their own paralysis when they’re not willing to take risks or learn from taking risks.  Managers should do a three-question analysis of their own risk aversion in order to build comfort with risk. 

1)  When have you taken a chance and it turned out well?  What did you learn? 

2)  When did you take a risk that didn’t turn out well?  What did you learn? 

3)  When did you play it safe and why?  Was it the right or wrong decision?

The learning element in this exercise generally proves that the manager is no worse off having taken a risk than not taking it.  Often, upon reflection, the risk would have been the right choice in all three scenarios, successful or not.  The key here is the value of the learning.  We always learn when we take new action; we rarely learn by being repetitive or safe.

Linear thinking, like reliance on the past, are root causes because they inhibit straying into creative arenas or new territories.  They’re linked to risk aversion because they tend to be the safer alternative.  However corporate-identified competencies clearly show that executives are looking for creativity, new ideas, and challenges to existing systems and processes.

Procrastination is a cause of ambiguity, but is often disguised by the external reasons of change and information.  In reality, regardless of the level of information, a good manager can make a reasonable decision at any time.  It is procrastination that will prevent the manager from deciding when enough is enough, or the time is now.  Managers need to seek out reasonable facts and figures to optimize decision-making, but they cannot obsess over them.  Another common procrastination is getting started.  The “I-don’t-know-where-to-start” syndrome is pervasive in many organizations.  We recommend two techniques:

Start with the end in mind.  Work backwards.  The other alternative is to start in the middle, back-up to what you need to know or have; and then move toward resolution.  The key issue of any ambiguous challenge is to start working on it.  Delaying the attack only enlarges the ambiguous nature of the chore.

Personal stress is what can prevent managers from seeing the “forest from the trees.”  Sometimes it’s necessary for a manager to accept that the limitations are from within.  To overcome these types of problems, you need to separate yourself from the problem, either by time, distance, or attention.  If time allows, put the dilemma aside.  Out of sight doesn’t always mean out of mind.  Let the subconscious play with it for a while.  Another solution is to walk away from the project by delegating, going somewhere else to think, or aggressively finishing another project in the interim.  Most people admit their best and real thinking is in the car or in the shower, etc.  Just go somewhere else to think.

There is some legitimacy to speed of change and information overload being the two external causes of ambiguity.   However, they should not create paralysis.  For example, if so inclined, any manager could do a chart of the Standard & Poors performance for one, five, or ten years back.  The data are readily available.  However, all the information in the last decade will not predict, undisputedly, what will happen in the stock market today.  A manager either makes an educated investment or keeps all the money in a mattress.

Productivity Skills

In The Future of Leadership, White et al. propose a model of the skills required for uncertain times.  Having the skill to learn constantly can quickly address at least two causes of ambiguity:  risk aversion and linear thinking. Energy allows you to overcome procrastination.  Focus allows you to reduce stress and deal with the plethora of information.  Simplicity is an excellent counterpoint to speed of change.  Inner sense and well being helps one deal with the reliance on the past.  To know that each day is an accomplishment, reassures us that the past and present can merge comfortably to prepare us for the future.

A manager should become a full-time learner.  Skill sets change.  Processes change.  Opinions and trends change.  What better skill to arm managers with, then, to learn how to learn?  It certainly will smooth their paths.

Reducing Ambiguity

It’s important to stress that not all work situations must remain ambiguous.  The timing of a company reorganization, or a potential merger, may be out of the manager’s control; but the more immediate job challenges, work processes, and staffing decisions are always a function of management.  For example, one of the most common complaints is the reluctance to hire because they’re not sure if the position is long-term.  However, at the same time, work is not getting done, or staff are getting burned out trying to complete the work.  Then, morale drops, managers get stressed, they procrastinate about hiring, and staff become resentful.  Then, morale drops, managers get stressed, etc., etc.

The best way to reduce ambiguity is to follow some very basic steps. 

Identify everything over which you have some reasonable degree of control.  Focus in that area. 

Shift your perspective.  Often, items are blown out of proportion or totally ignored.  If events seem blown out of proportion, develop perspective by relating your area to the overall performance of the department, the company, the industry, even the universe.  Is this decision all that important?  If events are being ignored, just as hiring, reevaluate your perspective.  Determine if lack of attention or lack of activity is causing more problems than would occur from actual attention or activity.

Weigh the risks.  A good manager calculates risk and converts risk into an adventure, not a danger.

Overcome negative fantasies.  People have the ability to imagine consequences worse than actually occur.  A “calling on the carpet” is more likely than a firing.  Rarely when a manager hears someone say “you’re not going to like this,” does the manager actually say, “I hate it.”  Most often it is welcome, although not desirable, information.

Identify manageable parts.  Most huge situations fraught with numerous ambiguous states can be broken down into manageable subsets.  We can work on the new inventory system, but let’s hold back on relocating the warehouse.  One way or another, we’ll track inventory even if we don’t ever decide on a location.

Plan for the unknown.  After all is said and done, something will happen that no manager could anticipate.  An inner sense of courage and comfort with one’s own capabilities will serve every manager during tough times.

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