Understanding and Managing Ambiguity

Male businessman feeling unsure




Larry Seal


In today's ever-changing business environment, leaders must increasingly manage themselves and their teams through change and the ambiguity it creates. Whether that ambiguity is due to the unexpected action of a competitor, a surprising shift your organizational structure, or even a global pandemic, the natural human reactions to unforeseen events, can create distinctly unhelpful reactions. This reality dramatically impacts everyone’s ability to rapidly adjust and arrive at solid decisions. Wise leaders recognize this and create practices to speed their team’s ability to adapt and execute.

Develop Your Own Tolerance for Ambiguity

The most critical step for leaders, by far, is cultivating the ability to observe and understand your own reaction to the various types of ambiguity that occur at work and in your life. Tools like meditation can help you develop greater self-awareness and therefore the ability to interrupt negative patterns.

The ability to see things clearly and in proper context is best done at some distance. When you are too close to a situation you can’t see and experience things as neutrally and clearly as you might. The act of intentionally trying to step back from the moment and examine your own reactions and those around you creates improved perspective. Meditation helps you be able to observe your mind and body reactions from more of a distance helping you process more clearly. In the workplace, where you are likely not meditating most of the time, you can still help yourself and those around you to increase insight and thinking using some simple questions.

What you might ask yourself in times of change and uncertainty:

  • What set of circumstance are most likely to provoke an emotional reaction in you?
         What causes you to shut down or react with anger and frustration?
         Where do you become tentative or even fearful?
         Where do you begin to question others motives and lose your ability to assume positive intent despite not understanding the full context of the circumstances?
  • When do you feel you are your least effective with your reactions and thinking?
  • Where do you feel you are you the most effective and why?

It is only by understanding your own patterns that you can begin to manage them more skillfully and subsequently help others manage their own. In Part Two of this blog, I will examine how meditation can be useful to maximize the impact of this work.

Support Reflection and Consideration

A leader who acknowledges the need for the team and themselves to process and work through the very human reactions to unexpected new circumstances will find much improved decisions and the motivation to make them successful. These leaders create the space to allow people to understand and then “step back” from their immediate reactions and begin the critical transition to more rational processing and problem solving.

This processing space doesn’t need to take days and days to traverse, although with extreme changes that might be exactly what is necessary. It might only be 30 minutes where people are encouraged to reflect and consider their present state and how that impacts their assumptions and thinking. Skilled leaders often pose questions that their team can examine individually and then as a whole.

  • How would you describe the change that just happened?
          What part of that is factual and what is assumption?
  • What is the single strongest emotion you are experiencing right now?
         How is it helpful and how might it get in the way?

Encourage Open Dialogue

The leader must create an environment where open dialogue is encouraged in order to help people move beyond their own personal reactions. Hearing others, observing their reactions, comparing it to your own, immediately begin to move you to a more rational place of perceiving, thinking and analysis.

The leader is wise to encourage an open and honest expression of both emotional and thinking reactions. When people feel safe discussing their experiences without judgment, they begin to dissolve the intensity of their reactions and their attachment to them. Knowing you are not alone in your reactions creates more confidence and understanding. This of course, allows everyone and increased opportunity to step into a problem-solving and more creative thinking mode.


Navigating change and its subsequent ambiguity is a significant and powerful leadership skill. It is a tool that thinking leaders actually practice on an ongoing basis so that in the face of a significant change they and their teams are first to adjust and adapt effectively. Just like you can develop an increased comfort with something like public speaking, improving your own tolerance for ambiguity is not only possible but a powerful differentiator for the most effective leaders.


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