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Ambiguity as the only certainty. How do we deal…
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Ambiguity as the only certainty. How do we deal with it?

At both the individual and organizational levels, dealing with ambiguity is becoming increasingly crucial in a rapidly changing world. This competence, the ability to navigate in gray areas and reconcile different perspectives, is considered essential for future success. Competence Center Next Generation Work emphasizes this importance by combining scientific insights with the exchange of experiences from leading partners such as SD Worx, Johnson & Johnson, and others.
by Peggy De Prins, PhD, Kathleen Vangronsvelt, PhD | January 15, 2024
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Blog ambiguity

"The only certainty is that there will be ambiguity" - it could become the new slogan after the infamous "Change is the only constant." Whether experiencing a restructuring, collaborating with colleagues from different cultures or generations, or witnessing your job change due to AI applications: all these events come with a lot of ambiguity.

This also applies from a policy perspective. There is no such thing as the 'right' personnel practice or management approach. Reality is more complex than that. There is always a complex puzzle of perspectives, practices, and dynamics that, in synergy, impact work behavior. And that impact can also be complex.

How do we learn to deal with it? As individuals, but also as business leaders, prevention, HR professionals, or in general: as organizations.

This was the focus of our recent partner meeting, where scientific input was combined with the exchange of experiences. The enthusiastic (current/future) knowledge partners of the Competence Center Next Generation Work were present, including SD Worx, Johnson & Johnson, Argenta, bpost, B-Tonic, Elia & TriFinance.

Ambiguity as competence of the future

It became clear that dealing with ambiguity can be seen as a competence of the future. This involves behavioral indicators such as 'showing resilience in uncertain situations,' 'navigating between different views of experts or leaders,' and 'taking responsible risks.' A convergence of uncertainty on one hand, but at the same time expecting self-reliance and autonomy on the other: situations, let's say, that bring an increased risk of mental short circuits and tension.

"Mastering the art of successfully navigating within gray zones."

There is also a difference between the ambiguity caused by the general context - the volatile world we live in - and the ambiguity created by your policy. Inconsistencies in your HR policy, for example, by focusing on growth and development but implicitly or explicitly only focusing on results. Or promoting a network culture but encountering the remnants of an expert culture. One participant expressed it as follows: "The top of the company is often a reflection of the company culture, people who have grown with the company, thus with the expert culture: 'the expert who must always be right'."

Can this competence be developed?

Yes, dealing with ambiguity can be learned, but not so much through the traditional channels of formal training ("with a book or training alone, I don't think that will work"), but rather through sharing experiences ('social learning'), or through mentoring and peer consultation. Asking for and receiving feedback, regularly making time for self-reflection, constantly 'stretching' yourself, learning from mistakes, and being inspired by exemplary behavior are some of the possible levers in a development trajectory.

"We started with an experimentation group to learn to deal with ambiguity, and if something doesn't work, that's also a success because you've learned something."

Creating and encouraging a learning climate is essential to achieve growth and maturity as a team, but also as an individual. Set an example by being vulnerable, seeking advice, naming ambiguity and tensions, seeking 'sensemaking.' Don't shy away from courageous conversations. These prevent the feeling of short-circuiting from being magnified.

Working in diverse teams can also bring relief. Employees collaborate with different profiles and learn from each other how to deal with ambiguity. An international experience (expatriate or exchange) can also have a positive effect on the meta-skill 'dealing with ambiguity.'

Collaborating with colleagues from other cultures

When it comes to collaborating with colleagues from other cultures, learning to deal with ambiguity is almost a conditio sine qua non. It is part of adopting a broader, global mindset. It makes you realize that the perspective you are used to, or rather, the one in which you were raised, does not necessarily coincide with the perspective of others.

A simple example: some of us communicate agreements very explicitly, in very clear language, repeat agreements regularly, and prefer to put them in an email to be sure. This style is called 'low-context'. A style that is especially popular in America, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and Germany. Others need fewer words; they rely on a shared context, can read between the lines, and trust oral agreements. These are the 'high-context' colleagues. Especially Asian colleagues score high on this communication style. Belgians are somewhere in between.

Lost in translation

In an international team, such different communication styles can cause a lot of short-circuits. Some will feel offended when agreements are made (too) explicitly (like: 'don't they trust me?'), others will be inclined to put even more details in an email (like: 'I prefer to micro-manage rather than endlessly wait for something to happen behind the scenes').

Naming these communication differences, taking time to get to know each other thoroughly in this regard ('where are there personality differences? where are there differences in national culture?'), adapting (mutually), aligning with the team and company culture, ... these are just some of the approaches that can strengthen us in dealing with (cultural) ambiguity.

Interested in a knowledge partnership with the Competence Center Next Generation Work?

Contact peggy.deprins@ams.ac.be or kathleen.vangronsvelt@ams.ac.be.

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