By nature, I’m an organized person. I like things clear and orderly, laid out in black and white.
So, some years ago, as a new senior manager, I asked my boss to explain what my responsibilities would be after a company reorganization. I wanted to know, with absolute certainty. But my boss just looked at me and said, “Colin, in a senior position you need to deal with ambiguity.”
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but in retrospect it was excellent advice that helped me learn to handle uncertain situations. It seems especially timely now, as I look at the uncertainty of the world around me. From Brexit to rising seas to the future of trade pacts and U.S. healthcare, it sometimes seems that there’s little we can count on.
Business leaders – like everyone else – must contend with these external ambiguities and their potential consequences. Executives struggle with internal ambiguities too. We see it every day in our customer experience consultancy. Every business is driven by human interactions – between management and employees, employees and customers, customers and their friends and followers. These interactions are by nature ambiguous, irrational and based on emotions.
Many people are like me – they want to know things for certain and they like step-by-step guidance. But to lead an organization in our increasingly complex and uncertain world, you must develop an ability to handle ambiguity.
I recently re-read an article by life coach Melanie Allen that explains ambiguity in business well. I agree with her that the best leaders will accept the challenges and respond with confidence and adaptability. But I also have my own list of ways business leaders can handle ambiguity:
- Accept that you cannot control everything. From the future of regulatory issues to whether the new manager you hired is going to work out, there are many things in business – both internal and external – that are beyond your control. And the business world is only getting more complex. Let go of the notion that you can control everything.
- Learn to act based on the information you have. An ambiguous, fast-paced world means you can’t wait around to get all the data you might possibly want before making a decision. Assemble the information you can and make your best decision, based on what you know.
- Accept that you will make mistakes. You will not always be right, but one of your jobs as a leader is to make decisions and carry them out. Don’t dither or become paralyzed by choices – act decisively, and treat your mistakes as a learning experience.
- Be flexible. Be willing to adapt and change course if things aren’t working out. Let go of the notion that every decision you make must remain set in stone.
- Learn to handle uncertainty. I have a strong tendency to try to control everything. I have had to learn that many things are beyond my control, and I deal with this uncertainty by imagining various scenarios and planning how I will deal with them.
- Recognize that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan. In the customer experience world, what works for one business won’t work for another. Resist the urge to look for simple recipes, and use problem-solving skills to find a solution that works in your business.
- Have confidence in your own abilities. Confident people listen and ask questions. They take action and they’re not afraid to take risks. They’re willing to ask for help, and they’re happy to give credit to others. They don’t put other people down, and they acknowledge their mistakes. If you have the traits of a confident person, you’ll be better able to respond to factors you can’t control.
- Trust your gut. Your “gut feeling” is really just your subconscious processing information without you realizing it. In the customer experience field, we recognize that subconscious factors drive much of a customer’s purchasing decisions and experience with a brand. Most of the information you need resides in your subconscious. Listen to that voice.
- Accept advice. Our saying at Beyond Philosophy is that “None of us are as clever as all of us.” No matter how experienced and talented you are, there is always someone who knows more or can offer a fresh perspective. The world is complex and we all tend to live in our own bubbles. Take advice from others, and be sure to give them credit for their ideas.
- Manage stress. Ambiguity is stressful, even if you follow all my tips. Take steps to manage your stress, whether that means regular exercise, meditation or just taking time out for friends and hobbies.
Ambiguity is all around us. How do you deal with it? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
It is imperative you are not uncertain about how to measure your Customer Experience. Join me for a FREE webinar, Where Customer Experience Measurement Goes Wrong, on Tuesday 22nd August. I will tell you where most organizations are going wrong and moreover, what to do to fix it. You will get a chance to ask questions and discover what you can do to improve your CX measurement.
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Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of six bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.
Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX