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The Secrets To Acting Confidently In The Face Of Uncertainty

Research shows fear of ambiguity holds us back from personal and career growth. Here’s how to understand why and what to do about it.

The Secrets To Acting Confidently In The Face Of Uncertainty
[Photo: Flickr user 白士 李]

Imagine this: You’re driving along an unlit winding road in the darkness, the air so dense with fog, you can’t see past your headlights. You grip the wheel, lean in, and drive cautiously ahead, all your attention trained on that moving patch of light in front of you. Somehow, in that blinding fog, you make it to your destination.

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If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the late great writer E.L. Doctorow’s take on what the process of writing feels like–driving through blinding fog, unable to see where you’re going. Doctorow’s words are a comfort in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty. But beyond describing the writing process, his analogy grasps at what much of our careers ask of us: to act cautiously yet confidently in the face of the unknown.

Easier said than done, of course.

It’s this dance with ambiguity that Jamie Holmes explores in his new book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, which draws from research across academia, including the work of philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists. Holmes spoke with Fast Company about the psychology behind our resistance to ambiguity, as well as how and why it’s essential to embrace the unknown in order to grow both personally and professionally.

Our Need for Closure And Simplification

Throughout the workday, we’re busy trying to make sense of all the information, or lack thereof, we encounter. There’s an impulse to want to understand, reach conclusions, take control, and manage what’s around us by simplifying it. Holmes draws on the research of social psychologist Arie Kruglanski, who has a term for this impulse for clarity: “cognitive closure,” or the need for “an answer on a given topic, any answer, compared to confusion and ambiguity.”

In other words, a sense of closure, even if it’s way off, is more comforting to many of us than having to live with uncertainty. “One of the ways we manage complexity is by reducing non-identical things to identical things,” says Holmes. Another way we do this is by reducing contradictions, jumping to conclusions, oversimplifying, making assumptions, or holding onto beliefs we’re simply unwilling to shift in the face of new information.

According to Kruglanski’s research, the more stresses we’re put under, the lower our tolerance for ambiguity becomes. Those stresses include time pressure, a lack of sleep, loud background noise, and alcohol–all of which have been shown to make us less tolerant in moments of uncertainty. And so we seek to streamline the complicated, what psychologist Jordan Peterson refers to as the “miracle of simplification.” The only problem is, we’re often jumping to wrong conclusions as a result.

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Risk And Ambiguity Are Not The Same

This impulse to oversimplify and doggedly adhere to an opinion can have serious consequences in the workplace. It’s what leads to hiring biases, poor negotiations, and brash business decisions. But while they may seem interchangeable, ambiguity and risk, says Holmes, are not the same thing. Decision theorist Agnieszka Tymula has studied the differing developmental paths that our tolerance for risk and ambiguity take over the course of our lives, looking at how adolescents and adults handled each, respectively. Teens, she found, are far less risk tolerant than adults.

At first blush this might seem contradictory. Just think of all the stupid risks you were willing to take as a teenager that you wouldn’t go near now. Sure, you’re older and wiser, but that also means you’re more capable of truly weighing and understanding the probability of taking clearly defined risks. And that’s the difference. In the face of a true unknown, you never really know what stands to be gained or lost. And when you know a thing or two about risk taking, that’s scary. “What distinguished adolescents was their willingness to accept ambiguous conditions–situations in which the likelihood of winning and losing is unknown,” write Tymula and her research team. “Biologically, such a tolerance may make sense, because it would allow young organisms to take better advantage of learning opportunities.”

But ambiguity doesn’t go away as we get older. We might just become more prone to avoiding it. That ability to deal with the unknown that we had little trouble with when we were younger can seem more loaded in adulthood. This isn’t to suggest you should go into your work decisions with the kind of brashness of your younger self, but rather, that it’s important to remember that venturing into unknown territory is the stuff of true learning opportunities. No matter how young or old we are, that willingness to step into the unknown is what enables us to stumble onto something we weren’t expecting and come away wiser.

There’s No Escaping Ambiguity In The Workplace

Workplace decisions are complicated. The world is changing too quickly for us to be unwilling to embrace what unknowns might be coming at us. “For small companies in volatile markets, a CEO’s capacity to tolerate ambiguity is crucial to a firm’s success,” writes Holmes in Nonsense. He sites research out of Sweden that showed ambiguity tolerance, as opposed to confidence, was one of the most important factors that led to a firm’s financial success. “Being humble and flexible as a matter of character is one thing,” writes Holmes. “Constructing a new business model predicated on not knowing is another.”

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That’s precisely what Amancio Ortega, the founder of Inditex, did when he created the fast-fashion business model for the Zara retail chain. The new production process allowed the company to follow fashion trends with much quicker turnaround time, rather than having to predict what fashions people would like far in advance, as retailers had traditionally been doing. “Zara’s spectacular success is based on Ortega’s bald admission that we often don’t know the odds, even in the short term,” writes Holmes.

The key here, of course, is figuring out a way to embrace the uncertain, as Ortega did, rather than trying to ignore or simplify it. This is not unlike driving through the fog at night. You’ve got a heightened awareness that you don’t know what’s ahead of you. You’re sensitive to your surroundings. You move with precision, gathering as much information as you can, rather than blindly speeding through the dark.

Our problem when faced with ambiguity, says Holmes, is that we tend to fall into one of two traps: jumping to conclusions or refusing to change our opinion. “If things are changing very quickly, you want to be flexible,” he says. “You want to make decisions deliberately and be willing to change your mind and change courses as new information comes in.”

This is critical for CEOs of massive companies, just as it’s important for fledgling startups, or doctors diagnosing patient symptoms, or creative professionals trying to come up with a new idea. It’s that acceptance of the unknown that the Lean Startup model, which has taken off in Silicon Valley, is largely predicated on–the ability to iterate and make changes quickly in the face of uncertainty.

According to Harvard Business School’s Gary Pisano, embracing that unknown and making it part of your strategy is what makes new ideas and connections possible. “Innovation drags us into the realm of ambiguity,” says Holmes of Pisano’s research. “As soon as you’re trying something new, you’re out there on the edge of the island.”

Learning To Embrace Ambiguity

This all sounds great in theory, but how can one actually become more tolerant of ambiguity? Research has shown that uncertainty is an emotional amplifier, says Holmes. It makes the highs feel even higher and the lows feel really low. And whenever we act out of emotion, we tend to make brash decisions.

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That said, tolerance for ambiguity can vary wildly among individuals. Building on Kruglanski’s research, psychologists Arne Roets and Alain Van Hiel streamlined a 15-question quiz that can help you determine your tolerance for ambiguity. Remember of course that when you’re under stress or sleep deprived, this tolerance tends to go down and you’re more likely to jump to conclusions, default to stereotypes, and ignore the complexity of a situation.

Still, fixed as your relationship to uncertainty may seem, Holmes has suggestions for how to cultivate a greater tolerance for the unknown at work:

1. Up The Stakes
Accountability is always a powerful motivator. When the consequences of a decision are heightened–say, they need to be reported to a boss or announced publicly–people tend to become more open to embracing unknowns and less willing to jump to conclusions, knowing the stakes for them are higher, says Holmes. Creating those accountability measures for yourself or people working for you can help minimize that tendency to rush to a conclusion.

2. Broaden Your Perspective
Recent research has shown reading fiction helps make us more empathetic and emotionally intelligent, but it turns out that it also has the benefit of helping lower one’s need for closure. “You’re entering other people’s minds and thinking through what it would be like to inhabit their decisions,” says Holmes. That broadening of perspective can help make managing uncertainty easier, just as research has shown that multicultural exposure reduces stereotypes, discriminatory hiring, and the need for cognitive closure. What’s more, research has also shown that such diverse experiences encourage creative thinking. The key here, says Holmes, is to “challenge your mental models.”

The same goes for developing new ideas and inventions. “Again and again you see this pattern in inventions, where the use you think an object is for obscures its potential for inventions,” says Holmes. “It’s really about breaking your habitual association with objects in order to be more inventive.”

3. Start Treating Your Successes The Way You Do Your Failures
There’s a delicious satisfaction to embracing your success. It feels good. But don’t let that victory hold you back from trying something different, new, and risky. “When people say success hurts, it’s because they are dropping out of learning mode,” says Holmes. “In a way, confidence is the opposite of uncertainty.”

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Treating your successes like your failures means continuing to learn and grow from those experiences, to improve on yourself and the way you get things done. It means staying in self-questioning mode. “When I’m wrong, I’m kind of happy about it, because I’ve learned something,” says Holmes. “For some people that may be embarrassing, but I promise you I’m going to move ahead of them, because I’m going to keep learning.”

The lesson here: Whether you’re right or wrong, staying perceptive to what’s happening around you and being prepared to adapt to new information will ensure you’re pushing yourself and your career to new heights.

About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction.

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