Technological change and globalization have fundamentally changed work. In a world of increasing ambiguity, there is greater competition and higher expectations. We are facing more situations, projects, tasks, or goals that are new, different, unclear, or inexact. This trend will continue.
“Intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of an authoritarian personality.” ― Theodor Adorno
Tolerance of ambiguity is a personality trait. It can predict several adaptive outcomes in the workplace, including creativity and job performance. A team in Brisbane, Australia — Peter O’Connor, Queensland Institute of Technology, Karen Becker, QUT Business School, and Kerryn Fewster, Change2020, studied more than 800 workers to understand how they handle growing ambiguity at work.
The researchers found that when compared to those with negative attitudes towards ambiguity, people with positive attitudes towards uncertainty were:
- more creative
- better leaders
- better overall performers
- less stressed at work
- higher incomes earners
|Generation||Born||Current Age||Number in the U.S.|
|Baby Boomers||1944 -1964||54 - 74||76 million|
|Gen X||1965 - 1979||39 - 53||82 million|
|Gen Y (Millennials)||1980 – 1994||24 - 38||73 million|
|Gen Y.1||1980 - 1990||28 - 38||31 million|
|Gen Y.2||1990 - 1994||24 - 28||42 million|
|Gen Z||1995 – 2015||3 - 23||74 million|
One of the competencies we measure with our performance analytics is “thrives in chaos.” It is a unique competency where high performers naturally score high in efficiency and versatility traits and low in structure and relaxation traits. Thrives in chaos, along with “leads decisively” are the only two competencies that appear in all levels of the leadership ladder, a performance competency model for leadership levels from manager to the C-suite.
Younger workers show less ability to cope with ambiguity
Most noteworthy, the researchers found that older workers’ ability to deal with uncertainty is significantly higher than their younger peers.
“It is possible this simply shows ambiguity gets easier with age. Older workers might be more comfortable with ambiguity because they have years of experience and life events to draw from. Indeed, studies show people tend to become more conscientious and emotionally stable as they age, which might improve their capacity to manage ambiguity.” — Peter O’Connor,
However, the ability of younger workers to cope with ambiguity does not improve very much as they age. It is a consequence of the progressive removal of uncertainty from personal lives. Our performance analytics show that the performance traits are set by age 16, and they tend to stay with us. Nevertheless, we can get better at managing our challenge areas and using our strengths — superpowers — for career success and fulfillment.
The team surveyed 800 workers in a range of industries to explore the consequences of people’s attitudes towards ambiguity. The contributors each replied to a set of 45 statements that included:
- “I like engaging with complex work problems.”
- “I get anxious taking on problems that don’t have a definite solution.”
Participants demographics included age, experience, income, and professional competencies. Their colleagues rated their teamwork, creativity, and leadership.
The results showed significant generational differences in attitudes:
- 70 percent of the GenY (ages 24 to 37) respondents scored below average
- When compared with older workers GenZ and GenY (ages 18 to 37) were:
- twice as likely to be among those with the most negative attitudes (the bottom ten percent)
- half as likely to be among those with the most positive attitudes (top ten percent)
Workers who cope well with ambiguity, share three traits. They report:
- staying composed and calm in the face of ambiguity
- having a strong preference for novelty and risk over routine — challenging work
- possessing the skills that enable them to manage uncertainty, i.e., planning, using resources and problem-solving
The research shows GenY, and GenZ expresses as much desire for the novel, challenging work as older workers. However, they lack the skills and confidence needed to manage uncertainty when it occurs, and they are more likely to become anxious.
These results challenge the typecasting of younger people: digital-natives have the skills needed to innovate and adapt. O’Connor’s study found compelling evidence to the contrary.
“Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.”—Sigmund Freud
Do overprotective parents raise less resilient adults?
Overprotective parenting became prevalent in the 1980s. In their book, The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure, Jonathon Haidt and Greg Lukianhoff argue that just as safeguarding children from germs weakens their immune systems, parents’ efforts to shield children from unpredictable environments makes them less resilient and less tolerant of ambiguity as adults.
A school in New Zealand reduced school playground rules that related to risks of children getting hurt or making a mess. The relaxation of rules to let kids be kids was found to have positive effects which included fewer injuries and less misbehaviour.
Another article, suggests that we are wrapping our kids and playground equipment in “cotton wool.” We do not want our children to get hurt. However, by being overprotective, we may be inhibiting our kids from acquiring the vital skills of:
- facing challenges and failures
- learning from mistakes
Learning through trial and error is fundamental to dealing with life’s challenges and overcoming them.
Has technology compromised our ability to manage uncertainty when it arises?
We assume that technology “disrupts” our life and increases our exposure to ambiguity. However, technology is reducing our exposure to uncertainty in our personal lives.
With repetition, we learn the patterns needed to master a video game. Failure has little consequence as we can restart the game. Also, in seconds, our apps end ambiguity:
- Waze means we rarely get lost
- Google provides us with answers to any question
- Trip Advisor lets us know what folks think of the restaurant before we go in
- Shazam discovers the title of songs
- Fitbit tells us if we are getting enough exercise
We are reducing our exposure to “everyday” ambiguity.
Are GenY and GenZ at a permanent disadvantage?
Fortunately, becoming comfortable with ambiguity is something we can develop. It all starts with practice.
While dealing with ambiguity may not become one of your superpowers, you can train yourself to tolerate ambiguity better. Like any challenge with performance competencies, you can develop strategies to manage it, so it does not harm your performance or disadvantage you.
Start by increasing your exposure to ambiguity — attend new events, read a wide range of books, embrace thought diversity, meet new and different people, volunteer for new assignments, speak up at meetings, and travel.
Consider living abroad
Living in a different country boosts a person’s ability to navigate ambiguity creatively. On a recent trip to Australia, we met GenYs from Canada, Netherlands, UK, Japan and Sweden who were taking advantage of Australia’s Working Holiday Visa. Some were planning their next country and asking us about Canada. Their experience abroad will serve them well in the future.
To be focused and confident in new situations, strengthen your mindfulness, emotional intelligence, assertiveness, and creativity. These traits contribute to your tolerance for ambiguity.
Your performance DNA provides you with insights into your superpowers and blind spots. With this insight, you can manage the competencies needed for your role and use your superpowers to stand above the crowd.
An excellent place to start is gaining a higher tolerance for ambiguity. It leads to work satisfaction. So, look for ways to see uncertainty as an opportunity, if you want a happier working life.
Insights About Your Performance DNA To Advance Your Career
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In a given role, the high-performers have a common subset of performance traits. Our talent analytics compares your talent stack — performance traits and competencies — with high performers. We show you how to leverage your unique talents to achieve career satisfaction and success.
Focus on your strengths and manage your challenges. You complete the assessment online, we then provide you report and personal feedback via video call. We offer the service worldwide. We’d love to hear from you!