Like a Dog Chewing on a Toffee

One of my most admired colleagues, whose advice carries the weight of an edict with me, asked me to write a post about working with ambiguity.  She believed it would be cathartic for me personally but she also felt that sharing my experience working through ambiguity could be beneficial to others.

“Everywhere I look,” she said, “I see people struggling to move forward and add value without understanding what they should be doing or what’s going to happen next.  I think you can be a beacon in the dark.” 

(OK, so I added that last bit.  Her words were more along the lines of, ‘I think you may be able to contribute to this topic.’)

Ambiguity is a state of un-clarity or two opposing emotions.  Anyone who enjoys the fabulous BBC comedy Red Dwarf is familiar with Kryton the robot’s description of ambiguity: “I’ve been practicing ‘ambiguity’ but I look like a dog chewing on a toffee.” 

Ambiguity at work can take many forms: an unclear role, lack of feedback about your performance, a situation where people act friendly but aren’t really, a workplace bully who picks on you and disparages your work, etc. 

Unfortunately, these are all common scenarios in the workplace that detract from cross-functional alignment, cooperation and team spirit but knowing this doesn’t help because it may or may not change. 

Let me be very clear here: Complaining or feeling sorry for yourself won’t help, although confiding in someone you trust may bring new perspective to the situation.  Putting your head in the sand also won’t help because it won’t move you forward.  And unfortunately, doing great work won’t help because ambiguity is typically a leadership rather than a performance problem. 

The only things you control are how you respond to the situation and how you behave toward others.  And as it happens, that’s a lot.

I don’t claim to personify grace under fire but like you I’ve had my share of difficult work situations.  Along the way I’ve picked up a few tips that keep me focused and moving forward and here they are:

  • Be patient – Change is always in the air and this too shall pass. Jobs change. Toxic colleagues come and go.  Mind you, things may also get worse rather than better but you don’t control that so why dwell on it.
  • Be open – Your world is full of people, ideas and opportunities.  Don’t get so caught up in your situation that you miss them.  If you close your eyes and sit very still you can feel the potential in the air.  Have lunch with someone and talk about teaming up on a project.  Strike up a conversation on the train.  Be aware of what’s going on around you.
  • Be kind – Don’t make a difficult situation more difficult by responding with resentment or unkindness.  Both good and bad behavior are contagious so act like someone you’d enjoy working with.
  • Be helpful – Helping others gives you meaning in the workplace and can also expose you to new friends, ideas, skills and opportunities.
  • Be grateful – Try to forget the people or circumstances who are making your life difficult right now and raise a glass to those who have helped you along the way.  Maybe you can return the favor.
  • Be creative – Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Don’t do what people expect.  Don’t be afraid to fail.  Mind you, unless you’re Steve Jobs this probably won’t help your career but the world is rarely changed by successful people.  (Note: I work in marketing where creativity and experimentation are somewhat tolerated.  This advice obviously does not apply to brain surgeons, nuclear energy plant safety inspectors, etc.)
  • Be prepared – It is infinitely easier to deal with ambiguity if you have options.  And if you are open, creative, and patient you will always have options.
  • Be moving – Because ambiguity pulls you in two directions it can be difficult to move and yet, that is what you must do.  If you stop moving you’ll get stuck and be a sitting target for other people’s plans for you, or lack thereof.
  • Be still – There comes a time when the best action to take is no action.  By all means try new things and play your best hand but you can’t control everything that impacts you.  Knowing when to let go and float with the current is perhaps the most important lesson there is.

That’s it.  That’s all my hard-earned wisdom.  Try it and let me know how it works out for you. 

And remember, you’re not alone.  Everyone around you struggles with uncertainty every day.  Cut them – and yourself – some slack.
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