The world is changing in unpredictable ways. Even before Brexit or Trump, businesses were scrambling to evolve under the mutagenic light of rapidly advancing technology.
In such times we gravitate towards those who can offer us certainty, when there is none to give. To survive, we need to turn our backs on the mightily coiffed, buck-stops-here hero leaders who claim to have all the answers, and instead accept that we don’t know everything – and that’s okay.
Tolerance of ambiguity will be a vital characteristic of leaders in the years to come. Chief executives cannot afford to bury their heads in the sand when the storms of uncertainty hit, because these storms will never cease. Only by learning to operate in an ambiguous environment can they lead effectively.
The good news for those leaders who love plans and hate surprises is that tolerance for ambiguity is not so much a hard-wired genetic trait as a set of behaviours and attitudes that can be learned.
I love plans and hate surprises – help me
Leaders struggling with change need to understand that they’re not the only ones having a hard time, says CEB's HR practice leader Brian Kropp. Indeed, ambiguity can have far-reaching, negative effects on employees.
‘One of the first things that happens when uncertainty increases is that employees become risk averse. They have an increased desire to be recognised for the contribution they’re making. At the same time their roles become less defined so they’re not as sure what to work on, and employee misconduct increases by about 25% because there’s more pressure on them - they’re more likely to cheat, to steal or to file false expense reports,’ says Kropp.
The answer is clearly not to bear down on your employees with an iron fist, and nor is it to offer false security by pretending the uncertainty is over.
‘Promising that stability is the worst thing you can do. When you fail to deliver it’s impossible to recover from that,’ says Kropp.
Instead, leaders will need to treat the symptoms of uncertainty among employees: finding opportunities to recognise their contributions, being clear about what’s really going on, creating a space for them to share their concerns and frustrations and empowering them to make decisions and take risks.
It's also essential to help make employees themselves more tolerant of ambiguity, says Javed Khan, CEO of children’s charity Barnado’s.
‘CEOs can cultivate tolerance of ambiguity by being curious and asking questions. What do you think? You can spot the learners in there, who’ll say how about this or why don’t we that. My job is to encourage the others, the ones who’ll say I don’t know, we’ll need a feasibility study, we tried it in 1992 and it didn’t work,’ says Khan.
‘Where they’re coming from, they need everything in triplicate before we have a meeting. I’ve got to instil the confidence in them just to come along and have the debate, even though we don’t know what the objective is. People find it odd – we need objectives. Well, no you don’t. Let’s have ambiguous conversations.’
No, strategy isn’t dead
The problem with accepting ambiguity is that it can make things a bit vague – and it’s hard to make business decisions on vague.
‘The response a lot of people have is there’s unpredictability, so I shouldn’t do anything,’ says Kropp. The key is scenario planning – understand what could happen and how you’d respond in each case. ‘It’s about shortening your planning horizons to months, not years. Then you won’t fall into the trap of waiting for ambiguity to resolve itself, which it never will.’
Sensitivity to employee needs and a clever approach to strategy notwithstanding, living with uncertainty will take some getting used to. It can be stressful to say the least, not knowing which way the wind’s blowing, particularly for the more neurotic among us.
That’s why it’s important to remember you’re not the only one facing these problems. ‘Spend more time with your peer group of leaders, in your company or other companies,’ advises Kropp. ‘At a minimum you’ll realise you’re not alone. The best case is you’ll actually identify some solutions other people have found that you could benefit from.’