Dealing with Ambiguity in the Workplace

 In Develop & Coach

Dealing with Ambiguity in the Workplace

When the boss doesn’t have the answers, what do you do? Here’s a common example of how dealing with ambiguity in the workplace can be stressful. Our client asked:

“I’m learning how to manage my stress levels when it comes to major changes in our work processes. But it’s ridiculous to me that even management doesn’t have the answers yet about some of those changes and how they’ll impact us. A few of my coworkers don’t seem to be fazed by that, but it drives me insane. Any suggestions on what to do before I just quit and go somewhere else?”


We answered: You might be thinking that the grass is greener somewhere else. but don’t forget—every business MUST go through change in order to stay successful. And that means no matter where you go you’ll face some of these same frustrations. Unless of course, you join a company that is living in the throwback Thursday realm. One where the grass is definitely NOT greener. Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t times in your career that call for “moving on”, but just don’t be hasty in making that decision.

The struggle you’re trying to work through is dealing with ambiguity in the workplace. It’s one thing to learn how to deal with changes in work processes where all the issues are known and solutions have been identified. That alone can be challenging for many people. But, it’s another thing altogether when there are many unknowns that still exist. Especially considering that those unknowns and their possible solutions may have huge impact on you. And why is that so hard for some of us?

Struggling much, are you?

Here are just a few reasons that you might relate to if you’re not skilled in dealing with ambiguity in the workplace or even other areas of your life:

  • You prefer structure over uncertainty
  • You prefer things to be tacked down and sure
  • You’re less efficient and productive under uncertainty
  • You have a strong need to finish everything
  • You like to do things the same way time after time

3 Techniques to help you

If this describes you, here are 3 specific techniques to make dealing with ambiguity in the workplace easier, which is one of the real keys to successful change management:

1.    Ask the right questions to define the problem.

When you are in the midst of change and you’re not sure how things are going to shake out, ask questions of the decision makers. Don’t judge the answers before you hear them; keep an open mind as you ask:

  • Why the change needs to happen,
  • What benefits will the company get from the change,
  • How the leaders think the changes will impact the employees,
  • What problems are expected to occur,
  • How can you help figure out solutions,
  • How can you support the change most effectively,
  • Are there different ways to organize the workflow to accomplish the needed results,
  • What are the timelines,
  • What are the must-haves versus the like-to-haves, etc?

If your leaders are not providing you with the opportunity to have these discussions, ask for some one-on-one time so that you can ask some of these questions in private. Tell them you need some help in dealing with ambiguity in the workplace and you know they can give you advice.

2.    Take things in small steps.

For example, if you arrange some one-on-one time to gather information from your manager, ask a few of the most critical questions and take the time to think about the answers. Tell your manager you’d like to come back to the subject in a few days to discuss any suggestions you may come up with or any feedback on the new changes that you are experiencing.

When you take the approach that you want to participate and support reaching the objectives, your manager will be more receptive to hearing your feedback and answering your additional questions. And this will give you more of a sense of control and structure over the process.

3.    Remember that we learn from our mistakes.

Don’t be afraid to fail. I know it’s hard to accept the criticism that comes with failing, but when we take small steps, get immediate feedback and adjust our efforts to overcome the failure, we can learn more quickly and prevent making huge mistakes.

Most changes will incur many failures; the trick is to take small steps, review the results quickly, make adjustments and keep moving forward. It’s better to do one smaller thing a day for three days instead of one bigger thing in three days—we triple our learning opportunities.¹

When you are confronted by a mistake, the best way to handle it is to say “What can we learn from this?” Turn failures into learning opportunities for everyone involved. This creates a culture of team effort and innovation.

Some of you might be too young to remember the famous actress and comedienne Gilda Radner. One of the most influential players from the original Saturday Night Live cast, back in the day, she embraced ambiguity in a way that we can all envy and try to mimic.

“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.  Delicious ambiguity.” 

Here’s to Gilda and here’s to your success in dealing with ambiguity in the workplace.

¹FYI For Your Improvement: A guide for Development and Coaching, by Michael Lombardo & Robert Eichinger. Page 10

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