“Tolerance of ambiguity” – wonderful word, isn’t it? In German it is even better (‘cause we can stick all components together 😊) “Ambiguitätstoleranz”. What? Come again?

Actually, I am serious. Most human beings like clarity, predictability and safety. It makes sense – we probably are all descendants of people who were able to survive hard winters, harvest or hunt enough food, store it and ration out how much they could eat to survive until spring. So we don’t like it, if we don’t know.

As coaches, leaders, simply as human beings these days, however, being able to not-know and to tolerate unclear, ambiguous situations is becoming more and more important. The pandemic has shown most of us that “no plan survives contact with the enemy” (a quote attributed to Napoleon). The world is moving very fast and what is valid today might not be valid tomorrow.

As coaches we need to be comfortable with not-knowing. Not-knowing what is best for the client, not-knowing where a conversation can lead to. We need to be able to hold conversations lightly, at our fingertips, rather than in a firm grip as the “director of the process”. We need to trust our clients’ and our ability to co-construct a useful conversation.

As leaders, we also need to be comfortable with not having all the answers. In my view, a team performs best when they are aligned and empowered — as a quote by Steve Jobs puts it: “We don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do, we hire them to tell us what to do”. So, also as leaders, we need to be comfortable with not-knowing and ambiguity.

So how can we develop this tolerance of ambiguity?

For me, the most important shift was from trusting plans to trusting my ability to cope. I read a quote once: “The confidence of the bird is not in the branch on which it perches but in its wings and the knowledge that it can soar.” So, when I am finding myself overplanning, worrying, doing “if-thens” in the middle of the night, I have started saying to myself: “That, I’ll deal with when it happens.” Also, I remind myself that I have dealt with many unexpected situations in the past and will probably be able to do so again.

Another way is to remember that I am not alone: there are are people who will help me pick up the pieces if I mess up. As I am trying to be compassionate, they will be compassionate and not think less of me if I did not know what I cannot know and made a decision on my best knowledge at the time.

Being comfortable with ambiguity also means forgiving myself for things that went wrong. I think I learned this from my peers who were always understanding and assumed good intentions when I made a mistake. It is hard to learn tolerance of ambiguity when you are operating in a culture of blame, shame and an expectation to be perfect and know it all. My advice for you when you are in such a culture? If you can at all do that: don’t walk – run!

What helps you deal with the unknown without fooling yourself by thinking we can plan? How can we help young leaders develop this skill?

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