Comfort with Ambiguity

I had a boss who would tell me time and time again that I needed to get more comfortable with ambiguity. Each time he encouraged me in this endeavor, I would respond “I’m fine with ambiguity…I just want to know what’s going on!”. “Why?” he would ask. “Because then I could be doing something about it!”.

I think that’s the thing that’s so hard about change. In the wild – say in the jungle or a busy intersection – change causes a stress reaction: fight, flight, or freeze. You hear a growl; you freeze. A warthog leaps out; you climb a tree. A car comes out of nowhere, you get your butt back to the curb. These are evident and distinct dangers that require and elicit an evident and distinct response.

Changes in organizations, however, present more subtle, less distinct threats. A new president comes on board, our industry shifts, the economy tanks… Are these dangers? Should we fight? Flee? Physiologically, our bodies send stress signals. Rationally, we try to sort out what we’re supposed to do. It is not so much the change itself that is disturbing our natural rhythms but our lack of insight into what we’re supposed to do with the change in order to self preserve.

“Be a change agent!” “Keep your head down.” Get out while you still can!” These are the typical organizational stress responses. I stumbled upon a great little bit of perspective in an unlikely spot here: Though I am not needing to cure a stutter (at the moment anyway), this piece nicely described the tension between acting (fight) and not acting (flight) and the locked position we can feel if we “freeze” in the middle.

I particularly liked Figure 2 in this piece which neatly encourages the sufferer to gain a holistic – “higher minded” – perspective in order to relieve the strain of the stress response. “One must go higher and access higher resources and bring those to bear on the problem. So long as one stays in the middle, that one will remain frozen. You have to go higher for one never solves the problem by remaining inside the problem (See Figure 2). ”

The article notes what is actually at risk here. The stress response is not so much in response to a life threatening situation but, rather, a self-esteem threatening situation. This struck me as so relevant to the impact on employees of an organization in flux: “Will I be let go?”, “Am I valuable to the company?”, “Do I have a voice?”, “Will I have to prove myself all over again?”.
A change that you perceive could threaten your self-esteem – your self-worth – requires a response. But what kind of reaction is appropriate when you aren’t clear about the true impact of the change? The article mentioned above gives some good advice about taking control of the stress response.

In these very difficult times of organizational ambiguity, where jobs are in question, unemployment lines are long and reliable communication is scarce, it is a herculean effort to ‘stay focused” – though it’s what our managers admonish over and again. To live everyday wondering if you are doing the right things today to preserve your self esteem tomorrow – this is the stress that employees are placing on the table between us in my office.

My answers? Stay focused on what you do well as best you can. Use your resources to work out responsible “what if” scenarios. Participate in the change conversations by providing constructive observations and potential solutions. Although, I suppose these could be said to be just nicer ways of saying freeze, flee and fight.

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