We’ll See – Dealing with Ambiguity

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The #1 foundational characteristic of a change leader is their ability to deal with ambiguity. Not everyone has this capacity.

You do of course. You have to be able to deal with ambiguity to be a leader. Something I’d like you to think about today is how you, as a leader, take care of people with varying degrees of ambiguity tolerance.

Take a moment and rank your organization, collectively, on a scale 1 to 5, with 1 being no tolerance for ambiguity and 5 being a high tolerance for ambiguity.

Why did you pick the score you chose?

Where do you think your organization SHOULD be on the ambiguity scale for optimal performance with your people and your markets?

Often when working with these questions leaders tell me they desire an increased level of ambiguity tolerance in their population. They want to be more nimble. They want to move faster. The unknowns that come with that are tough and they wish their folks could deal with ambiguity better.

There are some businesses that would not be successful if they were a 5 on our scale. Let’s assume though that we want to move up the scale a bit.

We’ll See

Every kid knows that when they ask for a new toy or treat and dad says “We’ll see” that the answer is really no.

In business though ‘we’ll see’ is a valid answer. Do you ever use this phrase?

The key for the leader is to finish the paragraph. “We’ll see. We need to do more research. Let’s have the data ready and if we get the new contract on the west coast then we’ll move forward. If we don’t then we’ll have to wait until next year.”

Do you see what’s happening here? You’re teaching strategic thinking.


I think one reason why a normally flexible leader appears rigid is that they want to finish topics. It’s easier to provide a final answer than to leave a topic open and do the follow-up that’s necessary.

Expediency shouldn’t be the reason for rigidity.

Hire for Ambiguity Tolerance

If you want to change the dynamic in your organization and move up the scale you need to hire for this trait. Do you ask questions and test in this area for potential candidates?

Ambiguity Freaks People Out

In our work with executive teams there are a series of sessions with the team. There is a bit of education from me in each session. Part of the magic of these sessions is that we don’t plan a full year curriculum in advance. I don’t know what we’re going to cover in the third session until the second session is complete and we’ve analyzed a number of factors. You can guess why I do it this way. I’m confident that we will have a full program in the third session. Content isn’t the problem. The right content is what’s important. Therefore everyone needs to be flexible and be able to deal with the ambiguity.

But it freaks people out. It’s natural to want to know what’s next. It’s important that I do the follow-up with everyone to make sure they know there is a process, why we do it this way, and that it will work out. It would be easier for me to just publish a curriculum and rigidly adhere to it. But to get the best results we do it the ‘hard’ way.

Do you ever feel this tug?

To Do This Week: Analyze your behavior. Have you gotten into any bad habits like not leaving things open and flexible because it’s easier not to?

Let me know how it’s going. Click the “comments” box below to participate in an on-going discussion via LinkedIn.

Jim Canterucci

I don't know everything. But I want to. The focus of our firm, Transition Management Advisors, is to develop leadership capabilities to create a championship culture, generate innovation, and successfully lead the resulting changes.

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On August 1, 2017
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