Ambiguity is a fact of life. If you can manage it and diminish the fear of it, people will follow you. Be sure of that, if you want to be sure of anything.
Ambiguity, that perception that something is not clear, that there is doubt and undefinition, that facts don’t make sense somehow, or that there is not enough information and control, is something that scares and disturbs leaders all around. But believing you can go without it is not only an illusion but self-defeating. Learning how to deal with ambiguity is central to the role of a leader. Here are 3 reasons ambiguity is so important.
1. WHAT ISN’T MEASURED MUST BE MANAGED — For years we have heard about the ill of micromanagement. When a leader believes the only real way to have everything done well is doing it himself, or command with hubris and control with an iron hand, all kinds of bad things start happening. The first casualty is the work environment which becomes toxic and intolerable for the employees and team members. Then demotivation creeps in, which gets the leader even more worked up about the results not coming in. Internal communications go awry. Rumors and intrigues come next. And depression, and people turnover, and loss of knowledge, critical thinking, and creativity. And forget about innovation — if everyone has to follow the same reasoning, there’s no chance of innovation.
But why do people micromanage? Why is it still so widespread? Because leaders feel so responsible for the outcome of their teams and believe their careers are not entirely under their control. So, they try to purge ambiguity by controlling everything. The saying goes: what cannot be measured cannot be managed — and so everything is measured and controlled. But that is unproductive — good leaders relinquish control and create environments where their teams can think critically, exercise their initiative, and become creative. They thrive in ambiguity because this will bring new kinds of thinking and better ways to serve the clients. What is measured can be controlled but there is much more to manage than what is measurable or controllable. And measuring and controlling has a cost — it will have an impact on attitudes and behaviors and slow things down when they could flow better.
2. MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES ARE MORE PERVASIVE AND COSTLY THAN YOU KNOW — This short-sighted idea that what cannot be controlled is out of control and dangerous can create all kinds of disorders: including anxiety (a difficulty accepting the uncertainty of the future) and depression (a difficulty in dealing with perceived guilt and related feelings). According to The Lancet Global Health ‘Lost productivity as a result of two of the most common mental disorders, anxiety and depression, costs the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year. In total, poor mental health was estimated to cost the world economy approximately $2·5 trillion per year in poor health and reduced productivity in 2010, a cost projected to rise to $6 trillion by 2030.’ In the US alone about a third of the population will have anxiety disorder episodes sometime in their lives. Yes, that’s 1 in 3 people.
When you see employees getting ill more often and for longer periods, or absentees becoming more frequent, or feel a colleague or a team member becoming less dynamic, less energetic, less present, less active, less creative — you can bet there is a real chance of anxiety or depression going on there. And these cost real money to organizations. As Sigmund Freud himself told us 100 years ago: ‘Mental health is the ability to deal with ambiguity.’ A leader that can deal with ambiguity will have a more productive and engaged organization. As well as a healthier one.
3. OBJECTIVITY IS A LIE — Psychologists will tell you that what we perceive as objective reality already went through the filters of our mental frames, our emotional states, our culture, our intuition, our blind spots, and the perceived narrative of what is happening. There is no real objectivity. We try to hide behind objectivity to escape the ambiguous reality, but it is not possible. The way to be more objective and connected to reality is to understand our own biases, how each of our individual minds is eschewing the facts, and be open to other points of view. In other words: to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty. Just listen. Just listen and put your own facts ‘in check’. A leader that does that can not only be better informed and knowledgeable but also gain the loyalty and interest of employees used to be ignored and easily dismissed.
I believe leaders must fulfill a fundamental function for their followers and that’s what I call ‘the Alpha function’ of the leader (see more about Wilfred Bion’s ‘Alpha function’ here). That means being a lightning rod of the anxiety of the team. Too much ambiguity, which leads to anxiety, can freeze a person or a team, creating all kinds of barriers to a productive environment. In the fast world we live in, uncertainty is so pervasive that it seems to be everywhere. When we have all the data, all the facts, and all the information… it is already too late to act. So, a good leader will take it for granted. And deal with it.