Dealing with Ambiguity

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

AmbiguityConcept description

Merriam-Webster defines ambiguity as something that does not have a clear single meaning, and handling ambiguity is persistent challenge in management.

Indeed, some specifications of job requirements, such as the CMHC Dictionary of Behavioural Competencies, include the ability to accept ambiguity and uncertainty in the workplace.

Walter Oelwein, a management consultant, writes in his blog, Manager by Design (reference below), that “treating ambiguity as a steady state, and getting used to making decisions in this state is not a desirable situation” because:

  • It misses opportunities to obtain less ambiguous data
  • You effectively train your team not to get you information
  • Your decisions are always suspect
  • This translates into encouraging more ambiguous situations beyond decision-making
Reducing ambiguity

Instead, he suggests that good management design should encourage the ongoing reduction of ambiguity wherever it is possible. Oelwein says:

“A clear decision reduces ambiguity. Team goals reduce ambiguity. Performance feedback reduces ambiguity. The inputs needed to understand the issue reduces ambiguity. You’ll never get rid of ambiguity – but you are there to try to reduce it. The team manager should have a key skill at taking ambiguous situations and identifying what it takes to make them less ambiguous for both the manager and the team. Any team exists precisely for this reason – to take inputs and create something better, or in other words, make something ambiguous less ambiguous.”

In a similar vein, Bridging the Gap, an advisory site for business analysts (reference below), says that managing ambiguity typically requires two approaches: “working to reduce ambiguity and finding ways to become productive even when uncertainty is unavoidable” and suggests three steps to help with the former:

  • Assisting the project manager in establishing ground rules, roles and mechanisms to foster productive discussions and interpretations of business needs and solutions;
  • Prioritizing and organizing issues to reduce the distraction caused by too many unknown factors;
  • Making an effort to establish a common understanding of project goals among different stakeholders so conflict is replaced by cooperation.

Walter Oelwein (2010), Let’s clarify what “dealing with ambiguity” means, at, accessed 28 February 2016.

Bridging the Gap (2010), Managing ambiguity – a key business analyst competency, at, accessed 28 February 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Handing Complexity (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 28 February 2016.

Image: Pinterest, specificity.versus.ambiguity, at, accessed 28 February 2016.