How to deal with ambiguity

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)




2 Comments Add yours

  1. Henrik Kofod-Hansen says:

    Hi Crystal,
    I will take the honor of being the first one to respond to one of your interesting stories on your blog.

    I fully subscribe to your views and approaches below, and believe that it is long overdue to instill such an approach in Singapore. The RFG program is a really good initiative that I actually often refer to when people say that Singapore is such a ‘one-directional-place’ to be in.

    As you are aware, I am Danish and hence I grew up in a society (and learning environment, and childhood for that matter) that encourages ‘speaking up’, find your own way and at the same time have a mindset of collaboration. Later on I moved to Germany, where the learning and work culture was and is quite different. It was more about following instructions, avoid risk and less collaborative.
    I am not attempting to promote stereotypes here, but would like to flag the need for learning institutions (this includes also the corporate talent programs!) to also equip students/talents with a toolbox that enables them not only to deal with a VUCA world, but to effectively drive a different set of behaviours in their post-study life – and become leaders that are being followed because of their positive impact and personalities.

    When your students leave NUS they are often times immediately earmarked as ‘talents’ and will get into a role where they feel the pressure to excel and get a good return on investment in their studies. Some may feel entitled to be a ‘talent’, and feel empowered by the resources your have provided them with in the RFG program.

    How many of them will have the humbleness to be a good person to be around ?
    How many of them will have the love to continue learning for the sake of becoming better and not only promoted ?
    How many of them will become inspiring leaders through their behaviours and values, not because of their professional success only ?

    I think that these questions cannot be answered at this point of time, so please allow me to use this as an inspiration to look into how we can equip young people to become inspiring – as personalities and/or as leaders.

    1) Me and others
    Empathy and altruism are two powerful drivers of inspiring leaders, thinking and behaving for the good of their team and their ‘cause ‘ (e.g. business area, strategy, vision etc..). Positive leadership is not included in most talent programs, and we thereby miss a great opportunity to create leaders that can really make an impact.

    2) Strengths
    Most people have no clue about their own and other’s strengths, at best they are able to say ‘I am a good listener’ or ‘that person is a great in doing sales’. But that’s not enough if we want talents who can become self-aware leaders and who are able to develop their own and others strengths. The topic of strength inventory, vocabulary and interventions is missing in most talent development programs, and we then often create one-eyed-leaders who are missing this perspective in their subsequent leadership.

    3) Change Management
    An old discipline…where companies frequently do the same thing that let to a disaster last time…expecting a better result this time. (The definition of insanity). So many companies are talking about transformations; Digitalization, customer service excellence etc. And they still do it based on excel project plans and without the understanding of how motivation and engagement plays a role.

    If you can equip your students with more power in these areas, then the complaints from their future line-managers will be different; Hey, this NUS student is so good that my team wants to elect her/him as the new manager.

    Have a great week !



    1. Crystal Lim says:

      Thanks for the very thoughtful comments Henrik! I agree with you about the 3 areas you have mentioned, and we do focus on empathy, discovering strengths and agility in our programme, but I’m also thinking that we need to do more about developing compassion and altruism as you’ve pointed out. Mindfulness without compassion and altruism is just ruthless focus. 🙂


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