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You Can Manage Ambiguity by Reducing It

Manage Ambiguity

By Gloriana Garro
Director, People Development and Learning


I first heard of and started to think about the term “manage ambiguity” when we began to redefine the competency framework at Crowley. Ambiguity is a constant in everyone’s lives, so it sounded like such a critical competency for any professional who wants to be successful. 

But how do you manage it? 

As I pondered that, several experiences and situations came to mind. For example, early in my career, I was hired to be a site training manager in a call center – an industry I had no experience in. I had no idea about seasonal ramp-ups while managing more than 15 trainers at the same time. On-going requests for doing more with little time to react put me to the test.  

This year, COVID-19 has tested all of us. For parents like me – what to do with our kids? Will we successfully help them with school and keep up our work performance? We have to make choices and keep going — there’s no time to be paralyzed by uncertainty or fear of the unknown.  

What is Managing Ambiguity?

Korn Ferry defines “managing ambiguity” as “operating effectively even when things are not certain, or the way forward is not clear.” They point out that a person who’s skilled in this competency does the following:  

Personally, more than managing, I prefer to think I need to reduce ambiguity by asking questions, seeking information and connecting the dots to move on. When that’s not possible, your attitude becomes a tool of the trade. Ask yourself: “How do I react? What do I allow that uncertainty/change do to me? What determines my success or struggle in any given situation?”

Four Ways to Reduce the Unknown

A remarkable example of managing ambiguity for me is when my family and I decided to relocate to Jacksonville, Fla., from Costa Rica, for a Crowley career opportunity. I was excited, but at the same time had no certainty of how things were going to turn out at work and at home. New country, new culture, leaving your family and support system, new home, new schools, then everything that a career move brings: new challenges, a new team, broader scope, building relationships, making an impact and the list goes on.  

A lot of new and unknown, the ambiguity and uncertainty of this scenario were off the charts. So, how did I reduce ambiguity?   

  1. Take it one day at a time. I am a very organized and detail-oriented person. I prefer structure, but you need to focus on smaller chunks and on what you can control when you are faced with ambiguity. Don’t sit and wait to have every single detail to make your next move.  
  2. Embrace change. There is excitement about the unknown. Think about when you get a surprise gift. You enjoy it! Embracing means being more comfortable. Get to know yourself a bit more, learn what triggers you, and identify what stage of change you are on, so you can take action.  
  3. Check your attitude and your mood. I’ve learned that your thinking drives your behaviors, and your behaviors will get you results. A positive mindset is powerful. Overcome frustration with laughter and don’t forget to breathe.  
  4. Communicate. This is critical! If you have any questions, ask. Speak up, request clarification, or context. If you are the leader, then be mindful and provide as much detail as possible to reduce ambiguity or be transparent of things you don’t know. By being open, your engagement and support system will grow and it will help your team to reduce and manage their own ambiguity. 

I challenge you today to identify an area in your life where you might feel there is ambiguity and apply some of these ideas. Start small and celebrate those wins too.