Tolerance for Ambiguity

myriad of nylon ropes and hooks

The creative impulse can be channeled into productive ideas and products to the benefit of the organization. Do you possess the qualities needed to lead a creative team? One of those qualities is tolerance for ambiguity.

Ambiguity is what you have when outcomes are doubtful and paths are uncertain, when the meaning of events is confusing and the data are unclear. All organizations face ambiguity to some degree every day of their existence; sometimes the ambiguity rises to critical levels and it may seem like the organization’s very survival is threatened.

These times of ambiguity present an opportunity to discover the next level of productivity as the organization finds new ways to fulfill its mission in today’s environment. The threat of non-existence can compel us to ask the previously unasked and unaskable questions lying under the surface of organizational life.

Ambiguity is the precursor of creativity. Times of ambiguity cause us to ask deeper questions. Even in the Bible’s description of creation, we find ambiguity before creativity.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep.

Genesis 1:1-2a

On the other hand, these times may also produce the opposite effect; they may cause people to cover these unspeakable questions with an even deeper level of denial and retreat into the comfortable place of past patterns for dealing with problems. In times of crisis, people fly to the first apparent solution that pops into view. We do this to remove the pain of ambiguity.

Ambiguity occurs when things have not yet taken an identifiable form. We cannot answer the questions because we don’t yet know what they are. Is the problem technological or social? Is the problem related to what we did last year or last month, or twenty years ago? Are we experiencing the results of some change in the social and cultural environment? Are multiple factors contributing to this situation?

Returning to the Bible, we read,

The Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.

 

Genesis 1:2b

The Hebrew verb translated “moving” was used to describe the hovering or brooding of a bird over its young. It is the time of incubation. Creative leaders are able to tolerate the ambiguity long enough to incubate the best solution to the problem. The process of learning produces a sense of ambiguity and requires a willingness to give up the protection and safety of dependency on the familiar. Change is uncomfortably ambiguous.

Tolerance for ambiguity is also necessary for leaders who want to empower their employees. Out of misdirected compassion or because it makes them feel more powerful, leaders often succumb to requests for resolution by telling employees what to do. In so doing, they dis-empowered the employee and reestablished dependence on themselves.

Empowered employees also must develop the skill of tolerance for ambiguity. One of the most important parts of the creative process is to learn to be patient, to learn how to sit quietly in the mess, to stop the automatic response system long enough to see the underlying structure of a problem. Without this tolerance, the employee will constantly look up the chain of command for solutions.

Tolerance for ambiguity is especially important when the organization is going through a period of change, which, in today’s environment is almost everyone. The period between the phasing out of the old and the institutionalization of the new is extremely difficult. This phase causes the most trouble in action oriented Western cultures, for we tend to view it as unproductive. Yet, it is vital that the incubation period not be cut short and that the members of the empowered team have enough tolerance for ambiguity to multiply alternatives and choose the better solution.

What have you experienced in terms of organizational ambiguity? Why do you think people so easily fall back on the familiar? Is tolerance for ambiguity a skill that can be learned? If so, how?

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

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