All Articles Leadership Careers Why we’ll miss ambiguity

Why we’ll miss ambiguity

4 min read


Today’s guest post is by Jason Seiden, author of the award-winning “How to Self-Destruct: Making the Least of What’s Left of Your Career,” and “Super Staying Power: What You Need to Become Valuable and Resilient at Work.”

Younger generations are growing up less able to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity than older ones. This isn’t a knock on Gen Y, it’s a universal truth: On the whole, each generation seeks to provide a “better,” more assured life for the one that follows. In a very simple example, consider the pioneer who doesn’t know where he will live when he arrives in a new land. The first thing he does is build a house, thus eliminating much uncertainty from his offspring’s lives. Within modern society, we don’t have to worry as much about protection from the elements, but we find other ways to remove ambiguity from our world.

Our increasingly test-based educational system often explicitly eliminates uncertainty from classrooms. Structured, facilitated play activities eliminate ambiguity from children’s interactions. Religious and political voices restrict our choices through legal and moral pressure. Where uncertainty has not yet been eliminated directly, society has created such a vast network of teachers, specialists, therapists and over-involved parents that for many, ambiguity is no longer seen as a problem to be solved by me, it’s feedback that someone else didn’t fully do their job … and a sign that I need outside help. That’s a problem.

Actually, that’s 10 problems. Here is what I predict for corporate America should our unwillingness to handle ambiguity and uncertainty increase further:

  • Animosity between workers and bosses in business will increase. Ambiguity often looks pretty darn black-and-white to the worker who doesn’t see the nuance. And when workers think management is overanalyzing/dragging its feet/fumbling a simple problem, they lose patience with, and lose faith in, management’s ability to perform.
  • Many younger employees will “opt out” of a corporate system they don’t fully understand. This will ultimately prolong their own learning curve as they try to re-create a “better” structure without realizing that a number of the problems with our current structure will exist in any system populated by humans because the problems stem from our human nature, not our system design.
  • Leadership will suffer. Take ambiguity away from leadership, and you take away tough decisions and responsibility. What you’re left with is overpaid administration. That’s the image many young professionals today seem to have of leadership, so that’s what they’ll create.
  • The Applization of design will get more expensive, as companies that try to build simple products with minimal learning curves find they lack employees who can accurately predict real-world user behavior.
  • Individuals will double down on what they are good at, which in this case is solving problems by working HARDER BETTER FASTER SMARTER. This will rob many companies of their “manager class,” as people who stay in the system opt for specialist roles rather than managerial roles that come with more — yep, you guessed it — ambiguity.
  • Career paths will become more fixed. Our ability to process ambiguity extends to our ability to assess other people. Already, resume readers look for specific patterns, jettisoning capable applicants with “non-conforming” histories. This trend will continue to amplify for awhile.
  • Companies will ruthlessly centralize their decision-making functions, concentrating power with a few select people who “get it.”
  • Individuals will become more system dependent, just as people who aren’t good at division become more dependent on their calculators. This will create feelings of frustration and resentment.
  • Stress levels will explode further. If you think it’s bad now, just wait. There is a lot of unresolved fear out there. Mix in a dash of helplessness (which is a often a synonym for “unable to handle ambiguity”) and you’ve got a potent mix.

Fortunately, these problems are also self-correcting — if we allow the process to unfold and work itself out. These trends won’t suck in everyone. and as the pendulum begins to swing, a countervailing force will create resistance. This force won’t stop the shift, but it will eventually slow it and bring everything back the other way, toward individualization. But can we can handle the ambiguity inherent in that process?

Image credit, kaisersosa67, via iStock