Managing Ambiguity when Certainty has Left the Building

If you, like me, find yourself facing very ambiguous situations more and more often, you’re not alone. Whether we’re navigating new stages in life or new technologies and advances in our business world, the pace of drastic, innovative change continues to accelerate at a rate that can seem alarming. How do we face a situation where our happy kid becomes a sullen teenager overnight? Or when advances such as AI and the Internet of Things (IOT) suddenly become factors we need to incorporate into our business strategy? We naturally pride ourselves on our ability to bring our expertise and knowledge to have the right information to guide us through these unknown situations – but what do you do when you’re thrown in the deep end of the pool without knowledge of how to swim to the side?

In her book Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life, our CEO, Patti Johnson, explains that our brains are hard-wired to thrive in certainty. We experience:

  • A  threat or alert response
  • A feeling that something is “wrong” – our ability to focus on other issues diminishes
  • A type of pain that’s manifested when we don’t know what to do

If we’re all facing ambiguous situations more and more often, how can we equip ourselves as leaders to face these situations more effectively? Here are some suggestions to help us deal with ambiguity effectively:

  1. Focus on what you can influence, not what you can control
  2. Adopt a continuous learning mindset; recognize that what got you here won’t necessarily be what takes you forward
  3. Experiment & expect (and welcome!) mistakes
  4. Develop informed intuition
  5. Be incremental – find the first step and move!

I often speak to my clients on this topic and their stories of how they’re learning to deal with ambiguity have inspired me. They’ve also reminded me that learning how to manage through ambiguity is a key skill set for us in both our professional and personal lives!

Sheri Browning is a Partner at PeopleResults. You can reach her at or on Twitter @sbPResults.