One of the biggest issues I hear about from employers is the scarcity of leaders and employees who can problem-solve and deal with ambiguity. This week alone, I had 3 meetings with employers who were asking me about “ambiguity- training” to help their employees thrive in a world of uncertainty.
Line managers often complain about Millennials needing constant guidance and direction- “where’s the template” “where do I find this” ” how long should this email be?” instead of taking the initiative and ownership to have an attempt at figuring things out in the first instance.
While I don’t think that this is an exclusively “Millennial” problem, I can also see how we’ve been conditioning our youth to behave this way since early childhood.
In Singapore, our education system is super-structured. We love to overteach and set clear assessment rubrics rather than give open-ended assignments or facilitate freeform discussions, which actually require greater skill on the part of the teacher to be able to guide the learning and weave learning outcomes into whatever “emerges”.
Assignments come with specific directives and a plethora of instructions, which encourages linear thinking and an overreliance on external authority and extrinsic motivation. I still remember my Chinese teacher who spent 5 minutes screaming at me in front of the whole class and flung my spelling book out of the window because I hadn’t used a ruler to draw a margin on one page.
What we have been cultivating, unwittingly, is the inability for our youth to develop their own sensing and decision making ability. And out of the 4 “VUCA” factors affecting our world today (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Amiguity), I find the youth that I deal with are struggling the hardest with “Ambiguity”.
The very first questions when I give an assignment or project tend to be “How many words should I write?” and if I tell them “As long as it needs to be”, you can see most of them going into trauma on the spot!
Why? We have been training process-followers, not problem-solvers. And ambiguity is hell for process-followers.
A process-follower’s survival mechanism in complex situations is to go into “confusion” and play the victim instead of taking responsibility to find solutions. But I find that actually most people are far more capable than they claim to be.
Confusion tends to be a convenient excuse.
Confusion allows you to maintain your ego. You don’t get the results you want, not because of your ability, but because it was out of your control. Nobody gave you clear instructions. The system isn’t set up in a way that supports you. The benefits of being a victim are endless.
You get sympathy, pity, attention, bonding with other victims, lack of responsibility.
You get learned helplessness, and the chance to infect others with your world view and gain supporters. The only thing you don’t get is results.
So how do we deal with ambiguity? 3 ways to start:
Firstly, develop your sensors. When you don’t have a clear direction, your sensing ability and feedback mechanisms need to be top notch so that you know which way to go. Learn to cultivate self-awareness and reflection, interpersonal awareness and the EQ to read others emotions and behaviours, and the ability to zoom out into situational awareness to see the big picture.
Secondly, watch your linear thinking. Are you too black and white in your own world view? A sure sign is to see if you are using words like “right” “wrong” “correct” “failed” etc. Can you be more spacious in your directions? Instead of saying “Can we do this?”, ask “Which part of this is possible?
Instead of “right” or “correct”, I say “appropriate” or “working”, because in an ambiguous world, there is no one right or wrong approach. Often seemingly contradictory concepts have to work together. What makes sense today may not make sense tomorrow.
Thirdly, ask good questions and encourage self-reflection in others instead of giving directions all the time. I used to encourage my team to be more assertive all the time, but this wasn’t always the best approach. Some actually needed to be less assertive and better listeners instead. What worked better was to coach them to be familiar with their own communication style and ask questions like “When does their communication style work for you? And when does it create problems? Who are the most difficult stakeholders for you to communicate with and why? Can you detect when your approach is working, and do you have the skill and flexibility to switch styles?
Lastly, experiment, prototype and stay radically nonattached to your decisions. This is where your ego really has to take the backseat. If the situation changes, sometimes that means changing your strategy, which always runs the risk of looking foolish. But I’d rather look foolish than be foolish. Try to zoom out and think of the big picture. When you’re growing rapidly and innovating, many ideas will flop. If you “fail” at something, shift to the mindset of “I’ve learned something new and expanded the boundaries of my knowledge”.
Try all of these and the results may surprise you. Let me know how it goes!
(Picture from our Future-ready Educators Summer School June 2017)