What’s your tolerance for ambiguity? How comfortable are you with not knowing? With operating in that gray fuzzy space of uncertainty? And related to this, how high is your need for closure, your need for certainty, for knowing?
Until I’d read Jamie Holmes’ excellent book Nonsense: the Power of Not Knowing, I’d never really thought about it.
Why is it on my radar now? Here’s a stat that will make you sit up and your eyes pop. Jamie says that up to 60% (yes that’s not typo) is influenced by our need to reduce ambiguity and amp up closure. That’s a whole lotta influence.
“How we make sense of the world, is in part based on how we make sense of ambiguity, that hazy space between ignorance and daily rituals.”
Because we have such a high need to reduce ambiguity we see what we expect to see. We take shortcuts, especially to bow down at the altar of productivity and efficiency.
When we’re faced with chronic uncertainty, we grow “pattern hungry” in search for confirmation.
What’s more, when we’re stressed or feel under threat, we have even more of a need for certainty.
Put another way, when the pressure goes up, our open-mindedness goes down. We’re even more open to dictatorial leadership.
This includes seemingly unrelated pressure. Subjects in a study that were faced with an annoying sound from a nearby room made decisions faster and more poorly. For example, they were less tolerant of information that conflicted with their beliefs.
We have stronger emotional responses to a high state of ambiguity than we do when faced with risk!
That is, being in a state of ambiguity tends to bother us more than risk.
How we deal with ambiguity is so important to us humans and such an influence on our behavior that Donna Webster and Arie Kruglanksi created a need-for-closure scale that measures “differences in our baseline cravings for clarity.”
The scale has “less to do with what you believe than how anxious you become when those beliefs are challenged.” (You can take the assessment below.)
In this big, bold, every complex world, we need to be able to handle ambiguity. We desperately need to not shut out people, but rather work to welcome and include other’s thinking. Our survival may very well depend on it.
Here are some ways to increase your comfort with ambiguity, from Jamie’s book:
- Practice what I call gray thinking. Instead of defaulting to black and white thinking (e.g. false dichotomies like right and wrong), work at holding 2 opposing thoughts at the same time.
- When you’re in an ambiguous situation (including trying to learn something new), try to eliminate tension and anxiety. That will up your tolerance for ambiguity.
- Relax. You got this …. Because it’s a skill you can learn. “A person’s comfort with confusion, the ability to admit that he or she is wrong, resilience and the willingness to take risks are primarily emotional skills.”
- Take an assets-based approach. Increasing your comfort with ambiguity can lead to more innovation. “Failure is a part of innovation but with the idea that confusion is too.” “Think of confusion as an opportunity to learn, not as a failure or an obstacle to understanding” Eric Mazur, Harvard physics professor
Spend some time pondering your own comfort with ambiguity. Based on all the research we’d all do well to increase it.
Now go on and learn, laugh and lead.
- Take the ambiguity assessment and share it with a colleague.
- How many, if any, circles do you see? Let me know in the comments below. Hint: don’t necessarily go with your first answer, live in the gray, ambiguous zone a bit.
- After taking the assessment talk about how you can increase your tolerance for ambiguity using the tips above.
Kathy Borst says
The ambiguity assessment didn’t give me a score, just data on how many people answered each question.
Hi Kathy – you are completely right. The scoring system is not working right now and we are working on fixing it. Apologies for the hassle.
In the meantime not to worry, you can self score using this system:
Completely agree = 6 points
Strongly Agree = 5 points
Agree = 4 points
Disagree = 3 points
Strongly Disagree = 2 points
Completely Disagree = 1 point
– Your need for closure is above average if you scored 57 or above. “A greater need for closure simply implies that the mind’s natural aggressiveness in papering over anomalies, resolving discrepancies, and achieving the miracle of simplification is set a bit higher.”
– This need for closure scale was developed by Donna Webster and Arie Kruglanski to measure our baseline craving for clarity. It’s referenced in the wonderful book Nonsense, the Power of Not Knowing, by Jamie Holmes.