Coaching, global Leadership, Senior Executives

Beyond Common Approaches to Helping Leaders Develop Their Tolerance of Ambiguity

You may have worked with leaders who:

  • Keep delaying the launch of a new initiative because “we don’t have all the information we need yet”.
  • Develop their plans in complete detail before presenting them to subordinates for input.
  • Reach quick conclusions about the people they work with or ideas that are presented.

All of these behaviors may reflect a low tolerance of ambiguity—or difficulty dealing with uncertainty, complexity, and rapidly changing conditions.

Unfortunately, dealing with these factors is the core challenge faced by today’s global leaders.

Low tolerance of ambiguity can hamstring executives by complicating their relationships with partners and subordinates, limiting their receptivity to new approaches, and delaying their implementation of essential programs. It can also make them unduly disturbed by temporary setbacks.

Antidotes—common and not so common

To improve your tolerance of ambiguity, you might start by considering these three often-cited recommendations:

  1. Active listening This is a critical tool because it helps you reach a better understanding of others and their ideas while building trust that facilitates candor and buy-in. It involves taking care to show that you’re listening to the other person, providing feedback, deferring judgment, and responding appropriately. It also builds your confidence. When you’re on an unfamiliar path, really connecting with others is like finding a traveling companion. It’s good to be able to share the journey—even when the two of you don’t completely agree with each other.
  2. Examining your assumptions Are you accepting something as true simply because you’ve heard it said, saw it written, or noticed that it was true in one instance in your experience? Obviously we all have to rely on serial assumptions to get through an ordinary day, but, when facing uncertainty and complexity, unfounded assumptions can severely limit your options.
  3. Withholding judgment Have you noticed how often the best solution ends up being a minor modification of a really poor one? This means that, even if a proposed solution strikes you immediately as unworkable, it may contain the seed of something better. You can ask why the solution was proposed. Or wait to see if others suggest ways to improve it. And, yes, this isn’t always an easy call—some ideas DO need to be dismissed so that you and your team don’t waste time going over everything that comes up.

You might also consider the following, which I rarely see mentioned:

Develop contingency plans. Venturing into unknown territory is easier if you’ve already worked out what you’ll do if your approach doesn’t work. It’s important to communicate these backup plans to subordinates so that they, too, feel more confident about moving ahead. It also keeps the new plan from being labeled as “your” plan. Instead it’s something you came up with, and you’ve already come up with others, just in case.

Have faith that things will eventually work out. When you’re really experienced with a particular task or area of knowledge, you tend to move forward confidently even if you can’t see all the way down the path. You just assume that, whatever you run up against, you’ll eventually get to your destination. You may even enjoy being confronted by roadblocks and finding ways to get around them.

But when you’re in new territory and the way isn’t clear, you tend to get anxious. When this happens, ask yourself what information, expert guidance, or other resources you need to be able to move forward with the same confidence you have when you’re in more familiar territory.

Maintain work/life balance. A satisfying life outside of work helps you deal with uncertainties and tension on the job, so you don’t feel you have to resolve everything immediately. And if things fail to work out the way you planned, you have something to fall back on.

How coaching can provide leaders with both a model
and an exercise in the tolerance of ambiguity

In coaching global leaders, I find that I often have to be willing to let the process go places I might not have predicted at the outset.

In fact, a coach can model the process of navigating uncertainty, allowing leaders to see the value of exploring new ground without feeling they have to strike gold immediately.

As with any work-related activity, there’s a balance to be maintained because leaders don’t have unlimited time and they need to see real progress from working with the coach.

But I’ve experienced the advantages of letting the process unfold. Leaders’ new mindsets and the approaches they learn to pursue are more lasting and more broadly applied when founded on the kind of understanding that comes from self-discovery and first-hand experience.

In fact, the interaction between leader and coach and the winding path it sometimes covers can become a real-world exercise in how to move through uncharted waters and come home with treasure.

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