Dealing with Uncertainty

As technology automates even more work to increase productivity, and as workplace tasks become even more complex, today’s jobs are demanding higher cognitive skills with emphasis being placed on exercising judgement and coping with uncertainty.

In this respect, business leaders, managers and human resources departments are being challenged to identify, hire and reward engaged employees capable of thriving in ever changing and ambiguous environments.

The End of Routinization

Gone are the days when most jobs consisted of repetitive tasks that followed clearly defined protocols. These jobs have since been automated with advanced robotics and computerization capable of working smarter and faster than human beings. In fact, research shows that those areas in which jobs are growing the fastest are the ones that require higher-level problem solving and data analysis skills, along with the capacity to deal with ambiguity.

The Rise of Ambiguity

Among these traits, identifying employees who can handle ambiguity — the ability to cope without the complete picture — has become particularly important. That’s because organizations increasingly want staff members who can make decisions without reliance on hard-and-fast precedents.

The search for employees that can cope and thrive in ambiguous situations is linked, in part, to the astronomical growth of complex data. By its very nature, complex data can rarely be reduced to a single explanation. A multitude of perspectives can be used to interpret this data in different ways.

Identifying employees who can handle ambiguity — the ability to cope without the complete picture — has become particularly important.

Consider, for example, the classic image of the duck-rabbit. Seen from one perspective, it looks like a duck; seen from another, it looks like a rabbit. Neither interpretation is wrong. Put simply, it remains unclear whether this image is of a duck or a rabbit.

In the same way, today’s employees are being challenged to accept multiple perspectives and more ambiguity in workplace assignments because complex data is far more pervasive. As a result, organizations are looking for employees who are capable of dealing with multiple scenarios at once – the business equivalent of the co-existence of the rabbit and the duck.

A marketing study, for example, might indicate pent-up demand for the projected release of a new product while another might cite weakening demand because of household debt. The best employees can cope with this ambiguity because they interpret the data as it comes in — however incomplete, however contradictory. Instead of rushing to irreversible and single scenario decisions, they re-adjust existing plans or create new scenarios preparing, if necessary, for right-angle turns. In this particular case, they might commission another study — not because it will provide a complete picture but because it might help sharpen an ambiguous set of data.

Organizations are looking for employees who are capable of dealing with multiple scenarios at once – the business equivalent of the co-existence of the rabbit and the duck.

Uncertainty and Agility

Today’s organizations would do well to take a lesson from Field Marshall Montgomery, one of Britain’s greatest generals in World War II. Montgomery never believed in fixed or permanent lines of defense. Battles, he argued, are always fluid. Because the enemy is mobile, resources need to be continuously re-allocated to where the troops need them the most. Montgomery understood that uncertainty demands continuous adjustment. The old days of digging trenches and waiting for the enemy were long since over.

Organizations need to do the very same thing. Consider the case of launching a new product where the resources promised to one team member suddenly need to be transferred to another member of the team. This could be due to a number of surprises, including the unexpected launch of a competitor’s product. Whatever the reason, changing circumstances demand immediate re-evaluation. The launch team now needs to spend a lot more money on public relations than originally budgeted for.

Uncertainty demands continuous adjustment.

Uncertainty and Execution

Agile employees are able to accept sudden changes like these, not because they can predict the future, but because they understand that, when it comes to execution, uncertainty breaks loose on all projects.

As one business guru aptly observed, today’s challenge isn’t to predict the future but to live in a future we can’t predict. [easyazon_link asin=”0141015918″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”achievstrate-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Gut Feelings: Short Cuts to Better Decision Making[/easyazon_link] explores how even the greatest chess masters can only assess an opponent’s move five steps in advance. And it’s also why the best generals only apply ground-level details for fighting the enemy as the battle unfolds.

Tips for Dealing with Uncertainty

  1. Before hiring, have your human resources department assess candidates’ comfort levels with ambiguity and dealing with uncertainty. Scenario-based tests are available to help do this.
  2. Reward employees who are willing to act without the complete picture and who are prepared to make right-angle turns consistent with multiple readings of ambiguous data.
  3. Encourage employees to continuously re-examine incoming data in order to avoid over-reliance on past patterns of decision making.
  4. Train employees to find positive traits in ambiguity, such as more choice in decision making — the result of multiple scenarios.

Going forward, the best organizations will hire engaged employees who can embrace ambiguity and rapid change as an opportunity to act on different possibilities, particularly those with a customer focus. Even without the complete picture, these staff members will have the confidence to generate new scenarios and act on their findings. 


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Image credit- chalabala / 123RF Stock Photo

Kelly Murphy is a certified Human Capital Strategist and Strategic Client Manager at Halogen Software. Her passion is the intricacies of people and business. She enjoys sharing the challenges, the successes, best practices and strategies with human resources professionals and business leaders. She’s committed to helping organizations find the right solutions for their talent management goals.

  • Hi Kelly,
    Thank you for writing about the power that uncertainty can have over our decision making abilities. I’ve believed for some time that having agility in our awareness is a very important piece to functioning at a higher level at this point in time. We actually become more innovative and save time when we learn how to connect the dots of all the date we receive. Letting go of the known takes courage!

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