People differ greatly in their tolerance for ambiguity, though it is uncommon for leaders to admit that they don’t like situations that are unclear. As leaders, they feel that they must be seen to roll with the punches, help people find clarity in uncertain situations, and act decisively.

To get a more realistic understanding of your own comfort with ambiguity, start with assessing yourself on four modes developed by David Wilkinson regarding the ability to deal with increasing degrees of ambiguity and complexity.

Mode One – Technical Leadership. These leaders usually deal with ambiguity by denial or creating their own certainty. Mode One leaders are also more dictatorial and are very risk-averse by nature.

Mode Two – Cooperative Leadership. The aim of Mode Two leaders is to reduce uncertainty and to build teams around them to mitigate risk.

Mode Three – Collaborative Leadership. Mode Three leaders have a tendency towards consensual methods of leadership. They prefer to work towards aligning team members’ values and getting agreement. Their approach to ambiguity is for the group to examine it.

Mode Four – Generative Leadership. These leaders use ambiguity to find opportunity. They tend to be habitual learners and innovators.

People have a certain threshold for dealing with ambiguity and that capability can be developed through structured practice and coaching. How can you start expanding your tolerance of ambiguity?

Banish availability cascades. These are the assumptions that something is true simply because we have often heard that it is a fact, or can think of examples where it is true. Availability cascades keep you stuck in the past, clinging to misconceptions (for example, leaders need to have the answers, strategic planning always looks five years out, the most effective motivator is money).

Explore the “new world.” Carefully examine the changes that have occurred in your field in recent years. What new rules, facts and beliefs are pertinent now? How do these jive with your “old world” view? Learn something from the system outside your current reality – a younger employee or a different industry – and implement it to improve your own performance.

Look for cognitive dissonance. When confronted with situations that challenge your beliefs, knowledge or values, what is your reaction? Carefully examine your thoughts and behavior in the face of something that seems “just wrong.” You may not change your world view, but you will at least recognize that reality is less fixed and homogenous than you once assumed.

Dealing effectively with ambiguity means slowing things down at times and not rushing to find “the solution” to every dilemma. “The creative person is willing to live with ambiguity. He doesn’t need problems solved immediately and can afford to wait for the right ideas” (Abe Tannenbaum).


Want to become a generative leader who embraces ambiguity? Contact Humanergy.

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