How To Deal With Ambiguity

Moving forward when you don’t know the way


Occasionally we are blessed with having every bit of required information at our fingertips in order to make a sound decision. Most of the time, however, that information simply isn’t there.

Managing ambiguity is a critical skill for leaders

As a leader you will regularly find yourself in a position where you need to move your team forward and make a decision without having all the facts. The first few times you find yourself in this position it can be quite scary, but it’s an important skill to master if you want to make timely decisions, take measured risks, and seize opportunities.

Avoiding decision paralysis

It’s understandable to want to freeze when faced with making a decision in circumstances where you have more questions than answers. How can you possibly make the right decision? What happens if you’re missing something critical? What if you get called out for making the wrong choice?

Waiting for complete information is not always an option, so the key thing to do is to be courageous and make an informed decision using what info you do have. It’s often a calculated risk, but if you don’t move now you could end up missing an opportunity or critical deadline.

If you have questions, by all means try to get them answered but don’t risk spending too long on this, and avoid allowing those unanswered questions to block you. Missing information should never be an excuse for not moving forward.

Support your team

When faced with a decision where I’m missing facts, I will occasionally test one of my team members by asking for their opinion. I find some people are naturally good at handling ambiguity and enjoy this challenge, while others – often the more logical, methodical thinkers – get spooked and go into shutdown.

When working with a team it’s very important to be sensitive about how individuals may feel when faced with ambiguity. Let them know you understand, and be sure to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers either.

Sometimes ambiguity can be a result of low self-confidence. Letting someone know that you value their judgement and opinion can be enough to help them speak up and suggest a way forward.

Effectively communicate your decision

Once you’ve made a decision, ensure you communicate it clearly and effectively, and that everyone knows what they need to do in order to support it. There may be ambiguity surrounding the decision but once made there should be no ambiguity about what has actually been decided.

Provide as much detail as is possible, and get people to play back what you expect them to do. If necessary, check in separately with those team members who are less confident, to ensure everyone is equally aligned.

Don’t be afraid to change course

Unless reversing a decision or changing direction will have serious impacts, you shouldn’t be afraid to pivot if you got it wrong. Sometimes a new piece of information will come to light that totally changes things, warranting a new decision.

Take responsibility and openly admit if your decision was the wrong one, but make sure your team understand exactly why you need to adjust course, what the new decision is, and what is now expected of them.

Photo by Thanos Pal on Unsplash

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