It’s natural to desire a clear direction and sense of control in our careers. After all, the unknown can be intimidating, especially when it comes to your professional future.
It’s comforting to have specific instructions provided at work. But a fixation on structure and a constant need for direction can limit your potential. Fear of the unknown can prevent you from taking risks that could elevate your success, such as pitching an innovative idea for a new project or starting your own business.
Staying in your comfort zone doesn’t allow for professional growth and keeps you playing small in both your career and life.
Because the career-success trajectory rarely resembles a linear path, honing your ability to thrive within ambiguous circumstances is vital. Learning to not only navigate but to also capitalize on the less clear-cut instructions and job responsibilities helps you become resilient. By building a tolerance for ambiguity, you can perfect the art of taking calculated risks that will assist you in adapting to ever-changing work environments, give you confidence in your decision-making ability, and render you more impervious to criticism.
3 Ways to Build a Tolerance for Ambiguity at Work
1. Make Small Bets
One way to manage the daunting scale of the unknown is to break down risks into a series of experiments or small bets. Basically, you want to test the water before you jump in.
If you are considering starting your own company, for example, a small bet might be keeping your day job while pursuing a side gig on nights and weekends. Do this, and you’re effectively managing your risk by measuring the success and sustainability of your new venture while maintaining a regular source of income with your full-time position.
Another way to understand this concept is through iteration, which is just a fancy way of saying you’re adapting, building, or expanding upon an idea. The goal is to test theories quickly and rigorously, evaluate the outcomes, and then evolve, pivot, or scrap it. Not every idea is inspired and deserves a comprehensive pursuit.
If you are in charge of product design for your company, for example, iteration helps you sort through the good ideas, weed out the bad ones, and foster the spectacular ones. The same is true for marketing techniques; sometimes, the campaign you develop is a complete flop, but the important thing is that you learn from the experience and incorporate your newly acquired knowledge into future projects.
By trying out ideas on a smaller scale, you provide yourself the chance to evaluate how risky an idea is while simultaneously minimizing any potential negative impact in the event that it doesn’t work.
2. Avoid Overreliance on Plans
Ambiguous circumstances can be particularly scary for people who crave structure. And, it’s true that organization can lead to efficiency, but it’s also possible to over-optimize and become too dependent on the plans you’ve made and the system you abide by.
When you make long-term career plans, you should be flexible enough to review, adapt, and change them as necessary. If you’re too rigid, you’re probably going to have a problem dealing with the random stuff you have no control over. For those with a Type A personality, crafting a five-year career plan seems methodical and logical, but it can provide a false sense of comfort and harm more than help.
Things change, and the goals you’ve set yourself may not be achieved on the timeline you had hoped, or in the way you imagined. For example, maybe you accept a job with the promise of leading a new division that’s set to launch in six months. But after one year there’s still no progress. If you’re too rigidly fixated on your five-year plan, you may continue to wait (and wait) for a promotion that ultimately never materializes, sacrificing years of your career and earning potential in the process. Instead, an uncertainty surfer would be willing to roll with the punches and adapt, perhaps agreeing to move to a different department in the company that offers more upward advancement or makes the leap to a new company that will allow you to achieve your professional goals.
If you rely on and focus on one firm plan, you’ll undoubtedly miss opportunities that arise along the way just because they don’t fit your career scheme. You may be working in a client-relations department when an associate at another company recognizes your talents for event planning and offers you a related role. Although it may not align with what you envisioned for your next job, if the position offers an opportunity for growth along with a great salary and a positive work environment, it’d be shortsighted not to at least consider it.
3. Embrace the Inevitable
One of the scariest things about accepting workplace ambiguity is the inability to plan for the unexpected. And yet in life, things rarely go exactly as we think they will. It’s impossible to anticipate when someone’s going to call in sick or when your supervisor’s going to spring a surprise on you. You can really only plan for the fact that unpredictable things are going to happen.
When unpredictable things aren’t good, they, nonetheless, don’t need to be crippling. By practicing negative visualization, an ancient psychological process intended to help you avoid emotional instability during stressful situations, you can learn to effectively manage your emotions when things do go south. Imagining negative possible outcomes (think worst-case scenarios) before they happen will enable you to anticipate and navigate setbacks. If you fear getting fired, consider how you might react if this were to happen. What would you say? What would you do next? You’d likely formulate a plan that involves polishing your resume and using your network to secure interviews—a far cry from ending up broke and homeless, a dramatic worst-case scenario.
The process works because it’ll empower you to assess circumstances rationally rather than reactively, thereby avoiding career-damaging hasty decisions. You’ll often find that the “worst” you prepared for doesn’t come close to representing the reality of the situation.
Whether your supervisor has started asking you to completely manage your quarterly projects or you’re keen on laying the groundwork for a brand new initiative, building a tolerance for ambiguity is a necessary job skill. The ability to work through assignments without supervision or explicit direction is an indispensable professional strength, and you can’t survive a changing workplace without it.