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Ambiguity? A New Book Suggests Leaders Should Learn to Love It

04/16/2015 05:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015

Good bosses are supposed to know that ambiguity, or uncertainty about the meaning of something, is toxic. Ambiguity is confusion. Ambiguity leads to stress and can even create chaos. At best, it should be grudgingly "tolerated." It really ought to be "handled," "lessened" or "dealt with." Robert W. Eichinger, an executive with leading corporate recruiting firm Korn Ferry International, reported a few years ago that "dealing with ambiguity" was a top-priority leadership skill.

Here's a novel concept: Embrace it.

A new book called Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders puts this idea forward. Its authors, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, are founding partners of Cultivating Leadership, an international leadership consultancy. They explain how one can go about leading in a manner that encourages, rather that bats away or stifles, ambiguity. Ambiguity, it turns out, brings with it a certain level of productive chaos.

Berger and Johnston describe the rise in ambiguity (as well as complexity, volatility and uncertainty) in our workplaces and private lives -- and they suggest an overall corporate transformation. They identify three habits of mind that move us toward a new paradigm: Ask different questions. Take multiple perspectives. And get a feel for the complex organism that is our workplace by learning to see systems.

For example, Berger and Johnston observed how two children's-services executives grappled with one more in a series of tragedies that had befallen a child under their watch. Realizing that their previous formulaic strategies just weren't working, they broke their pattern by dismissing the same old questions they had always resorted to in times of stress. Instead, they decided to "get underneath the questions themselves and identify a mindset"--and then shift their methods by opening themselves up to a new set of potentially ambiguous inquiries from outside sources. They were then able to see a pattern in their system and pinpoint how and where to make changes. This approach had dramatic results.

How does all this play out in the corporate world, though? Here's how Berger responded to some questions on the topic:

What is ambiguity in the workplace? How has it become such a monster that it must be "tamed"?

Humans have always resisted ambiguity -- our brains are just more still and settled when we believe we know what's going to happen next. I think the big change is that in the past we knew things were ambiguous but we made up stories (now we think of them as myths -- or sometimes religions) to help us feel like someone was in control.

These days, for most people, the idea is that we should be in control. And so we've designed all these organizational structures and systems, as well as laws and regulations, etc., that are designed to control and order as much of the world as possible. And some of this is fantastic. I'm a big believer in everything that keeps planes safely in the air or protects the safety of the food chain.

[But] some of it operates in a domain that's just not possible to control -- and sometimes detrimental to try (like when leaders go after shortsighted goals to try to control share prices). So now it's come to almost look like you're incompetent as a leader if you let too much ambiguity creep in. I think this is changing, by the way.

Do you feel ambiguity is something that can be embraced? How does opening oneself up to ambiguity lead to more productivity and innovation in the workplace?

Ambiguity is not only a space of anxiety (although it is that). It is one of the natural homes of creativity and innovation, as you say. And part of that is because when we don't know what's going to happen, we can be more creative about what we do next.

But I'm pretty convinced that another reason ambiguity is something that can (and often should) be embraced is that we waste so much time pretending things aren't ambiguous when they are. Trying to narrow and control something that is rightfully fuzzy and changing forces us to work twice as hard to get to a much more narrow solution set. And it creates unnecessary noise in a system, unnecessary time spinning wheels in meetings, unnecessary time investigating and trying to box in something that really can't be boxed. It's an exercise in futility, and we could be doing much more productive exercises!

To get very specific: A lot of leaders might be skeptical, or even fearful, about letting ambiguity ruin their team meetings. Do you have any suggestions for using ambiguity to improve meetings?

I like to give leaders permission to begin to play with what it might mean to plan and control less and experiment and learn more. And I ask them to think about their meetings in different ways -- not with the force of habit that usually drives meetings (and often drives them into a cul-de-sac) but with real thought and intention. We've written a lot about meetings on our blog.

Do leaders really take to the idea of dancing with ambiguity?

I guess one of our big surprises has been that when leaders get permission to really be in ambiguity in a new way, and a little practice using some tools or habits of mind, they love playing in ambiguous spaces -- maybe not all of them, but way, way more than I'd have guessed. They love skipping the parts of problem solving that are sort of miserable (endless meetings searching for consensus, or arguing about the narrowing of a focus that resists narrowing, and so on) and learning and experimenting and talking about what they're learning. So the news is that living in ambiguity cannot just be necessary and innovative, but it can also be a relief to actually stop struggling against the current and let the current take you to a better place.

Simple Habits reinforces many conclusions I have come to about management over nearly a quarter of a century as president of St. John's College. Leaders have to understand that they can learn from anyone -- either inside or outside the organization. At the same time, they must lead from within the organization, understanding its basic character and its habitual behaviors so that they can form reliable judgments about its current state. And good judgment must take ambiguity into account. It requires openness, both to a wide range of views about the present state of affairs and to a wide range of possible futures.

A kind of ambiguity also works to make the workplace function more smoothly. A good boss must trust the people in the organization, give them the freedom to try new things, support them if they fail and let them try again. Good bosses have to rely on people who have the strengths they lack. They cannot be afraid of having people working for them -- or lobbing questions at them -- who are smarter or more imaginative than they are. When our partners at work are active participants in a common search for answers, or in the common implementation of a vision, the systems we use run more responsively and more satisfyingly.

Of course, not everything is -- or should be -- ambiguous. But Berger and Johnston make a solid case that ambiguity should play a much greater role in the workplace than it currently does. If a boss can be comfortable admitting what he or she doesn't know and cannot predict, it allows the space for new suggestions and novel possibilities to arise from others. Ultimately, we are looking for an environment in which team members feel comfortable asking even the most disruptive of questions -- even questions that seem likely to torpedo the whole enterprise -- because only with this sort of freedom can we hope to get an array of solutions that is adequate to the real ambiguity we must live with. And only in this type of workplace can innovation and creative problem solving truly flourish.

Through befriending ambiguity, we become more aware of the possibilities available to us. And the more we understand the range of choices we have, the better our choices will be.