Dealing with “ambiguity” in the workplace

You may have come across the phrase 'must be comfortable with ambiguity' in a job description and thought to yourself, 'Isn't that a bad thing?

You may have come across the phrase ‘must be comfortable with ambiguity’ in a job description and thought to yourself, ‘Isn’t that a bad thing? How can a company acknowledge ambiguity exists within their system without taking steps to correct the situation?’

Ambiguity, which often is defined as ‘vagueness,’ can also mean directions that can be interpreted in more than one way. Whichever definition you subscribe to, it can be disconcerting to deal with, especially when it trickles down from above and lands on your desk. Starting a new project can be daunting enough, but when the parameters for accomplishing the task seem incomplete, or worse yet, contradictory, how do you proceed?

When a project has not been thoroughly explained to begin with, the message becomes even more garbled as it falls through the ranks. This is not unlike the game of ‘Telephone’ where one person whispers a sentence to another who in turn conveys it to the next person. More often than not, what emerges at the other end does not have much in common with the original phrase. While fun for children, it can be frustrating in the workplace.

Haste can often be the culprit, with a senior executive beginning the chain in a phone conversation and hanging up before follow-up questions can be asked. Instead of calling back and asking for clarification (whether through embarrassment or intimidation), the next person gives instructions on what he or she believes the assignment to be. The more confusing the message, the higher the probability that it will be passed on, with additional embellishments, until it is given to you to figure out.

In this scenario, it may be up to you to seek clarification. If possible, the best plan of action is to determine the originator of the message. If you can do so comfortably within the corporate culture, explain directly to the originator that you have been charged with the implementation of the project, and wanted to make sure of the objectives. You may not be surprised to find that the original intent is much different from the mission as explained to you. Be sure to convey to your boss the fact that you did align the project with the originator, otherwise he or she may not understand why you continued the way you did, or he or she could get blindsided from above.

Another, more positive, reason for ambiguity may be that the person who originates the project is interested only in the results, not the means used to attain them. It can be a measure of the trust your boss has in your abilities to figure out the ‘how’ and provide the ‘what’ that has been requested. Brainstorm two or three methods for achieving the desired outcome and schedule time with your boss for a ‘course correction.’ This will help align expectations and save time from going down blind alleys. Be prepared to make adjustments or even start over when additional ‘course corrections’ occur higher up the line, especially if you cannot get clarification from the originator.

Embarrassment, intimidation, miscommunication, haste and even office politics can play a part in creating ambiguity. Some organizations believe it stimulates creativity and are even proud to have it as an aspect of their corporate culture. That is the way it finds its way into job descriptions. If you apply for that job, or recognize the symptoms within your own organization, learn to clarify, adjust and read between the lines.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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