Let’s clarify what “dealing with ambiguity” means
Managers should help bring clarity to their team and make decisions on the best available information. That is a key role of managers. But somehow this gets lost. Let’s look at the concept of “dealing with ambiguity” and see how this can happen:
In many work environments, one of the key competencies managers and employees are expected to have is “dealing with ambiguity.” For example, if you look at Microsoft’s education competencies (listed here), “dealing with ambiguity” is defined as follows:
Dealing with Ambiguity: Can effectively cope with change; can shift gears comfortably; can decide and act without having the total picture; can comfortably handle risk and uncertainty.
With this definition, it appears that one who “deals with ambiguity” could be someone who accepts the ongoing state of ambiguity. That is, “dealing with ambiguity” means “living such that ambiguous things stayed ambiguous.” Or in other words, “Keep things ambiguous—that’s OK.”
Nowhere in the description of this competency, surprisingly, is the ongoing effort to reduce ambiguity.
It is true that there are many ambiguous situations that a manager needs to deal with, and especially true that new ambiguities will constantly arise. However, treating ambiguity as a steady state, and getting used to making decisions in this state is not a desirable situation. Here’s why:
a) It misses opportunities to obtain less ambiguous data
If you develop a competency in making decisions with incomplete information, then this is something you become proud of and perpetuate. You will begin to make decisions with limited information as a matter of course. If you habitually (or even proudly) make decisions with limited information, you are likely missing the opportunity to get more information and make a decision with improved info. Strive to get the available, accessible data to make the best decision. So instead of saying, “I have the ability to make decisions with limited information,” a manager should say, “I strive to get all of the information available first, and then I make the best decision possible.” Yes, it can still be a not-so-clear-cut case in one direction, but at least you make the effort to make it less ambiguous.
I highly recommend the book, How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business In it, Douglas Hubbard makes the argument that knowledge is the reduction of uncertainty. He doesn’t intimate that you can eliminate uncertainty, but it doesn’t take too much effort to reduce it. I wholeheartedly agree.
b) You effectively train your team not to get you information
Let’s say you state that you are proud of your ability to deal with ambiguity. Your team will pick up on this, and not make the effort to reduce the ambiguity. That effort to check the available information and to follow up to get accurate data? Not so much. Your team will know that you’ll make a decision on less than complete data anyway. So you are encouraging underperformance on your team, and your decision making will be based on less than complete data. They may even feel as though they will be punished if they try to make things clearer.
c) Your decisions are always suspect
You declare that you are comfortable in the ambiguity. You don’t need complete data. Your team is conditioned to know this. Your team now knows that you make decisions based on something other than the actual (or potential) data at hand. Is it Favoritism? Rhetoric? Drama? Historical inertia?
d) This translates into encouraging more ambiguous situations beyond decision-making
Dealing with ambiguity would seem to apply mostly to decision making, but it can easily translate to other areas of managing a team, especially if you set the tone that you are comfortable with the ambiguity:
Setting goals? Ambiguous.
Providing performance feedback? Ambiguous.
Team deliverables? Ambiguous.
Success metrics? Ambiguous.
How the team works together? Ambiguous
Decision making process? Ambiguous
Should you set the tone that you are comfortable with ambiguity, you erode opportunities for precision in all areas of your people and team management tasks, even ones that don’t have to be ambiguous. It’s a formula for not getting things done.
What to do instead: Reduce ambiguity
Instead of “dealing with ambiguity”, which has the strangely passive tone of allowing it to go on forever, a manager’s role should be “reduce ambiguity.” A clear decision reduces ambiguity. Team goals reduce ambiguity. Performance feedback reduces ambiguity. The inputs needed to understand the issue reduces ambiguity. You’ll never get rid of ambiguity—but you are there to try to reduce it.
The team manager should have a key skill at taking ambiguous situations and identifying what it takes to make them less ambiguous for both the manager and the team. Any team exists precisely for this reason– to take inputs and create something better, or in other words, make something ambiguous less ambiguous.
Without this ongoing effort, you get entropy, and entropy is free, so don’t charge for it!
Good management design should encourage the ongoing reduction of ambiguity wherever it is possible. Instead, many current designs, such as the one cited here from Microsoft, seem to encourage living in a steady state of ambiguity.
Have you had a manager who seemed proud to be living ambiguously? How did this affect the team?