Ambiguity = Potential or Anxiety Working With Dynamics of Not-Knowing by Catherine Hayes

BREXIT has left us swimming in a sea of ambiguity.  For some organisations ambiguity creates an opportunity for leading edge potential.  In others ambiguity creates anxiety and overwhelm.  It all comes down to the nature of the relationship with ambiguity how it is experienced and worked with…….

‘Knowledge is Power’, a phrase termed by Sir Francis Bacon in 1597.  It’s become the foundation for success in society.  Depth of knowledge known as, ‘Subject Matter Expertise’ influences all aspects of our lives, you only have to look at the range of degree topics that universities are offering compared to 10 years ago.  Specialist skills have become favoured over generalist skillsets.  People are hired, developed and promoted on the depth of their expertise.  Many organisations pride themselves on the knowledge base of their workforces, promoting their expertise as a key competitive advantage.

The advancement in technology has given us a helping hand, where would we be these days without Google?  If we want to know something, Google is our best friend.  And yet, the story shifts somewhat when it comes to not-knowing and particularly ambiguity.  With information at our finger-tips, we have become conditioned to know, and when we don’t know it’s a whole different ball game.  


Certainty = Good and Uncertainty = Bad

In today’s organisations the only certainty is uncertainty.  Despite this, we have become conditioned to seek out certainty, not wanting or being able to tolerate not-knowing and ambiguity.  A core paradoxical tension for leaders is trying to work with uncertainty and at the same time trying to hold the need for certainty, for themselves and their organisations.

Unfortunately, when it comes to ambiguity, our best friend Google doesn’t have all the answers.  Particularly for understanding how people work with and respond to ambiguity.  Working with the ambiguities and complexities of new and different has become a key differentiating success factor in organisations.  Especially, when it comes to leading change and transformations.  Over the years, I have found organisations that embrace complexity, change and not-knowing use the associated ambiguity as a competitive advantage.  Creating products and services that outshine their competitors. The same applies to leading edge science and health research.  The insight can’t be found in what is known, advancement is found in what is unknown.


Ambiguity Anxiety

One of the contributing factors to this challenge is personal accountability and pride.  I meet many leaders who feel embarrassed and incompetent for not-knowing.  That somehow they should have all the answers, despite the nature of the complexities and ambiguities that they face.  Fun and games start when they act out anxieties driven by wanting to provide certainty and clarity for themselves and others.  

I began investigating the impact of ambiguity anxiety in organisations in 2000, whilst the trend for outsourcing and offshoring started to take off.  Watching leaders with successful track records repeatedly failing to achieve outcomes.  Stalling their careers, whilst perfecting their skills in the art of political dance, without any known logical causes.  Key characteristics that had been at the heart of the success of their careers for many years, were being replaced with attributes that were disabling their leadership effectiveness.

Unpicking the drivers for what appeared as night and day polarised shifts in behaviour, all roads led to not-knowing and ambiguity.  Cited reasons were:

Fear- of failure and of the unknown future

Attachment- to what was known

Needs- to want to control outcomes

Entitlement- as leaders they should know and have all the answers

Comparing discoveries with Horney (1950) and Hogan & Hogan’s (2001) research on derailment factors, illuminated that what leaders were actually acting out were anxiety related responses to ambiguity.  For some leaders they were aware that in attempting to remove ambiguity they were adopting different behaviours in the hope of achieving results. For others, they reported feeling stressed, unaware of how they were unknowingly derailing their leadership effectiveness, relationships with others and their change agendas.

Whilst supporting leaders to work with their ambiguity challenges, I found that the way they processed ambiguity anxiety varied.  For some, the trigger was not being able to think or make sense of their experiences.  For others, it was represented in emotional responses, also showing up as physical ailments.  A number of leaders noticed an impact on their health and wellbeing.  Physical aches and pains, headaches, tiredness and exhaustion along with low immune systems were amongst the symptoms frequently reported. 


Core Capabilities 

Exploring the different dimensions of ambiguity responses, I became curious about the leaders that were excelling with their change challenges.  One of the key discoveries was that leaders had different approaches for working with ambiguity.  The aspect that seemed to make the difference was the alignment with Core Capabilities.  The varying types of leadership roles aligned to core organisation functions and how they were approaching and executing their responsibilities.

Symptoms of ambiguity anxiety appear when the nature of the experience is out of context for the leadership role, and when key role dependant needs are not being met.  For example, people who identify themselves with ‘Production’ the context of leadership tends to focus on operational structure and process efficiency.  Preferences for leading change tend to be aligned with staged incremental adaptation.  As opposed to ‘Project’ that can often require starting with a blank piece of paper.  Creating something out of nothing, stepping into unfamiliar territories to initiate and deliver successful change outcomes.  A process that is exciting and liberating for the ‘Project and Relationship’.  Yet for ‘Production’, even the thought of starting with a blank piece of paper can be perceived as challenging, stressful and even terrifying for some. 


Core Needs

Our needs inform and drive thinking and behaviour.  When our needs are not met, they prompt us to react and seek fulfilment.  The core needs at the heart of different organisation Capabilities are:

Production– Following a structured process along a defined path 

Project- Having clearly articulated goals and outcomes 

Relationship- Seeing and being able to form connections and interconnections

Expert- Utilising knowledge and experience to create solutions and solve problems

When the ambiguity experience is out of context with Core Capability needs the potential for anxiety increases.  Successful change leaders know when they have hit their limits and when their needs are not being met.  It prompts them to seek out alternative support to fill in the gaps.  


Knowing Patterns and Edges

It’s not ambiguity and not-knowing that creates the problem.  It’s the nature of the relationship that we have with these aspects and ourselves that creates the challenges.  When we can draw factors of our own experience into awareness it provides us with informed choices in how we act.  Leaders find gaining insight into the different relationships they have with ambiguity is vital.  Here are a few key questions that leaders find helpful to explore: 

  1. Where do you tend to process ambiguity? (Thoughts, Emotions, Physical Feelings)
  2. Are there any familiar patterns or scenarios in how or when ambiguity shows up?
  3. How do you tend to respond when you are faced with ambiguity?
  4. What primary Capability is more closely aligned to the work that you do?
  5. What Capability do you tend to deploy in how you approach your work?
  6. How do a combination of all of the above influence your thinking and behaviour?


Relationship with Ambiguity 

Ambiguity is ambiguity.  It appears in many different shapes and forms, throughout our daily experiences.  Organisations have a choice, to work with it and use ambiguity to create potential, or become overwhelmed and paralysed by it.  We only have to look at the chaos that has been created by the ambiguous unknowns of BREXIT, to see the impact. 

Even if we may have a high tolerance for ambiguity in one context, it’s likely that we will face its challenges in other aspects of our lives. When leaders know their relationships with ambiguity they can understand the causes of their distress and work through their responses.  Avoiding falling into the pride and self-confidence trap.  They can own their edges and limitations without enacting dysfunctional behaviours that impact the effectiveness of themselves, others and organisations.  A more resourceful approach than suffering the consequences of ambiguity anxiety and overwhelm.


Ambiguity Resources

Unfortunately, ambiguity doesn’t fit into nice neat boxes that are specifically aligned to four Core Capabilities.  Although, when leaders conduct Core Capability Maps of their organisations they can actively use them to inform risk mitigation strategies and approaches. 

In an organisational context leaders factor Core Capabilities into strategies and transition plans at the outset of their change journeys. Supporting them to utilise diversity of different capabilities and align change agendas with the appropriate resources.  This is one of the key approaches for how successful organisations navigate their way through ambiguity and use it as a competitive advantage.  


Case studies of transformation projects that have utilised Capability Mapping to achieve successful outcomes can be found here.

If you would like to discuss Capability Mapping or approaches for developing capabilities for working with ambiguity, in more detail, please contact us here at Transition Dynamics.

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Catherine Hayes is an Organisation Transition and Transformation specialist. She supports leaders and their organisations to navigate and work with complex transition challenges to deliver tangible results. Combing 30 years of practice with 20 years of applied research, organisational, clinical psychology and Buddhist philosophy, she has created change processes and diagnostic analytics and tools that support insight into the complexities and functioning of organisations. Including the development of a transition leadership approach that supports leaders and their workforces to acquire transition capabilities, whilst implementing their transformation agendas. Catherine is also the creator and facilitator of the practitioner Exec MBA Transition Leadership Series at CASS Business School.

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