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Dealing With Ambiguity- An Essential Leadership Skill

By Kathy Miller on June 27th, 2013

Over the past year we have conducted hundreds of leadership assessments.  We have found a prevalent gap in leaders’ comfort with and ability to deal with ambiguity.  They don’t like  gray areas or uncertainty.  This phenomenon is troubling since we are in the middle of unprecedented uncertainty stemming from global competitiveness, economic pressures, and a new generation of workers who don’t hold the same approach to work as the current leaders.   In fact, I could fill a few pages with all of the conditions that are currently creating a very uncertain business environment.

Certainly traditional training and development will not address the issue.  Comfort with ambiguity can be developed (to a degree) through several avenues.  When we coach leaders facing this problem, we start with practical suggestions such as developing several scenarios concerning the future over which they have little certainty.  We ask them to develop plans for each of the possible futures.   For example, if the uncertainty pertains to the cost of raw materials, we would suggest that they generate several scenarios concerning how the costs could vary and how strategy could address the cost variations.  Or perhaps the uncertainty is with forecasting sales.  Once again we would suggest that they generate a series of scenarios concerning sales, factors that could affect sales and contingency plans for addressing each scenario.  We have found that this process of constructing scenarios and devising strategies for each gives the leaders a greater sense of control of the uncertain future.

In addition to the practical scenario approach, we also use a deeper coaching process.  We work with  leaders around issues pertaining to courage, flexibility and the value of reflecting before acting.  We have found that some leaders become paralyzed by uncertainty while others act without thinking in order to reduce their own anxiety.  These deeper levels of coaching require our coaches to first diagnose the root causes of the discomfort and the likely behaviors of each individual leader.  Once the diagnosis is made, the coach can tailor a plan to the unique needs of the leader. Yes this process can be intense and takes time.  However the payoffs are great.  And can your company really afford to ignore the issues?  The question to ask when considering these coaching options is this:  In these times of great uncertainty and ambiguity, what is the cost to the company when leaders cannot deal with it?  What is the payback for moving leaders towards a more balanced reaction to uncertainty and a more productive approach to managing their discomfort with ambiguity?  The results will justify the efforts.