PR: How to handle Organization’s ‘Tolerance For Ambiguity’
Like a thick fog, ambiguity is a lack of clarity that descends on every organization at some point. Without strong leadership capable of cutting through that fog, organizations can face significant operational and reputational risks.
Researchers have found that one’s tolerance of ambiguity can influence their creativity. And since the pandemic began, creativity has been among the top skills desired by employers. I’ve found this to be especially true in industries that needed to change their ways of doing business overnight, such as health care and education.
As an accredited public relations professional, former bank security officer and crisis communication specialist, I believe tolerance for ambiguity and creativity are nowhere more essential in any organization than the communications function. I also believe that every level of an organization shares responsibility for the communications function, and so, raising the tolerance for the ambiguity of your entire organization is essential to building a resilient, thriving business with a strong reputation.
In my experience, bad news never strikes when it’s convenient. As internal and external events unfold, it is the communications function that must act in real time to gather and verify information, craft compelling messages, disseminate those messages to a diversity of stakeholders, listen and repeat. Assumptions and decisions must be made often without the full set of facts, which is why a high tolerance for ambiguity and creativity is so important.
Personally, I thrive on uncertainty. Ambiguity is a powerful motivator and creative influence because it forces me to do the hard work of taking inventory of the gaps in my knowledge and bringing the right mix of people together to solve the problem. When I decided to leave a long career in banking to start my own communications agency, I recognized that I needed to know what I didn’t know. I needed to remove the roadblocks in my own thinking.
Improving your ability to function within the fog of ambiguity starts with knowing where you are on the tolerance spectrum. Think of it as a road trip: Do you need to plan every detail of your journey, or do you hit the road and see where it leads you? In my experience, people with a low tolerance for ambiguity typically want answers immediately. They may delay decision-making or double-down on a decision, which may not always be the right one.
As a crisis communication specialist, I’m often brought in during the earliest stages of a crisis when little information is known and stress is high. In those situations, my job isn’t to tell the client what to say and do; rather, it’s my job to help the client downshift out of thinking, “I need answers now,” and into thinking critically so that we can take emotion out of the equation, examine what we know and what questions need to be asked, and begin to put some order to the chaos.
1. Know where your leaders are on the tolerance spectrum. People who are on different parts of the tolerance spectrum can work well together. In fact, I’ve found it’s best to have both ends of the spectrum represented at the decision-making table. For business owners, knowing where your team is at when it comes to handling uncertainty can help you put the right people in the right places, as well as ensure you give them the tools they need to be successful. Just as someone with a low tolerance can freeze with indecision, someone with a high tolerance for ambiguity can actually create chaos by not putting enough time into fact-finding.
2. Create space for creativity and calm. Sometimes people want an answer immediately, but it just doesn’t come. In a crisis, the pressure to respond can feel like you don’t have any time, but making a snap decision based on incomplete information can be far more damaging. Never underestimate the power of sleep. I believe the brain works on problem-solving while you sleep. Creativity can come from giving yourself time and space to look at what you know and don’t know and sitting with the messiness. Out of that comes order and structure once you’ve decided on a direction.
3. Put systems in place. When it comes to crises, my company’s clients follow our “BRACE” method when responding to any event, including events that are seemingly mundane (such as technology changes or mergers and acquisitions), unexpected (like a security breach) or tragic (such as accidents). The BRACE method is an acronym that stands for:
• Be the first to tell your story. Thoroughness is just as important as speed here.
• Research and inventory what you know (and can say) and what you don’t yet know. This helps ground your message in facts and answer anticipated questions. Chances are someone else will know all the details, so you better make sure you know the story as well as (or better) than they do.
• Assess who needs to know what and when.
• Communicate the facts courageously.
• Evaluate the response.
4. Accept that failure is an option. This is easier said than done, of course, but being comfortable with ambiguity means being comfortable with the possibility of failure. The person who has no tolerance for ambiguity wants certainty, while the person on the other end of the spectrum realizes there is no such thing as certainty.
As much as we might wish it, in business, there is no road map to guide us through the challenges we face daily. Especially at the beginning of a business, it can feel a lot like asking strangers for directions. Over time, however, you can learn how to deal with ambiguity in your decision-making and become a better leader as a result.