Managing ambiguity: the essential skill for career progression
Many of the top skills and competencies sought after by graduate recruiters are relatively self-explanatory, such as communication, teamwork and leadership. But what about managing ambiguity? It may be less obvious, but if you want to progress in a management role, it’s going to be key to your success.
The more senior you are, the more likely you are to have to rely on information supplied by others, which may be partial or incomplete, rather than making decisions based on what you have found out personally. That’s when an ability to manage ambiguity becomes a big advantage.
You can manage ambiguity if…
- You can make decisions on the basis of the information you have, even if that isn’t the whole picture.
- You can cope with uncertainty and risk.
- You can adapt to change.
- You have great problem-solving skills.
Which careers and employers require you to manage ambiguity?
This competency is particularly important in complex, fast-changing environments, such as in logistics and retail. For example, a retail store manager who is waiting for a delivery, but is not sure when it will arrive, will need to stay in touch with the supplier for updates while also making preparations to unload the delivery when it arrives. The store manager will also need to decide how many members of staff should be on hand to help and how much shelf space will be required.
Employees who can manage ambiguity are well placed to work effectively in large, complex organisations that are subject to change or reform, making this a valuable skill to have in a public sector career, for example, in the NHS or local government.
If the graduate job advert refers to the working environment as being fast-paced, dynamic and/or quick moving, there is a fair chance that being able to manage ambiguity will be an advantage.
How to develop your ability to cope with uncertainty at university
While still a student or as a job-seeking graduate, you can become more comfortable with living with uncertainty by:
- Seeking out opportunities to develop your leadership skills, for example through following the suggestions in this advice feature. This will help you to become accustomed to making decisions.
- Increasing your knowledge of your own stress triggers and building your resilience, so that you can cope with levels of uncertainty.
- Adopting a lateral approach to problem-solving, such as the IDEAL method explained in this feature on developing problem-solving skills. This will give you a framework for your decision-making.
- Taking yourself out of your comfort zone and putting yourself in new situations, even if you are terrified! Whether it is taking up public speaking (through joining a debating society, volunteering to do a presentation or being a university ambassador in local schools) or undertaking a gap year, doing something new and different will give you the confidence and experience to cope with uncertain situations.
- Becoming trained in First Aid. Dealing with a medical emergency is the epitome of managing ambiguity – in that you are responding at speed to the facts presented to you – and so having the knowledge to do this should give you the confidence and the practice to deal with any situation.
Take comfort in the knowledge that the graduate recruitment process can be confusing in itself, so if you can navigate that you’re well placed to handle uncertainty in the workplace.
How to show graduate recruiters that you are capable of managing ambiguity
Recruiters will be assessing your ability to manage ambiguity and cope with uncertainty in two main ways: one, through seeing your behaviour during recruitment exercises, and, two, by asking you questions at interview.
Tips for managing uncertainty during online ability tests
If the recruiter particularly seeks this competency, they may test how you manage ambiguous or uncertain situations via online ability tests (such as situational judgement tests), video ‘immersive experiences’ or game-based recruitment exercises. These are normally given to candidates just after they submit their initial application or as part of the application form. They usually give you scenarios and ask how you would respond.
If you are given scenarios in which you are asked to make a decision where you don’t have all of the information you would like, consider whether the employer’s corporate values and the priorities/purpose of the role you are applying for can guide your response.
Tips for managing uncertainty during interviews
In an interview, you could be asked a direct question about this skill, such as ’Describe an occasion when you had to deal with confusion or uncertainty, or make a decision without having all the facts’.
Prepare for this sort of question by thinking in advance about times during your studies, work experience, gap year or extracurricular activities when you found yourself having to act in an unclear situation.
For example, were you left alone in charge while working in your part-time retail job, and did you find yourself having to deal with customer queries that you didn’t really know the answer to? When you were editing a student newspaper, and you had a big interview lined up just before press day, but were in some doubt as to whether it would come off, what back-up plan did you put in place?
Similarly, prepare to be asked how you cope in a crisis. For example, you could be asked a competency-based interview question such as ‘Tell me about a time when you handled a major crisis’. After all, any crisis is likely to throw up uncertainty. For example, if you were away travelling and weather conditions resulted in flights being cancelled, causing widespread chaos, how did you cope? Did you find an alternative route home?
Remember, too, that one aspect of managing ambiguity well is asking the right questions that clarify the ambiguous situation as much as possible. You need to be able to assess what information is relevant and how to express your question in order to get it. You can demonstrate this in interview by asking the detailed questions that will give you the information you need to decide whether the job is right for you.
For example, you could ask detailed questions about the training available or for examples of how previous graduates’ careers have progressed (if that information is not on the graduate website). You could even ask your interviewers about the local rental market (although it is best to show that you have already done some previous research). Just don’t quiz your prospective employer about holiday entitlement and the benefits package, as it is best to ask that when made an offer.
Tips for managing uncertainty during assessment centre exercises
If you are asked to complete an in-tray exercise (sometimes known as an e-tray exercise), this will allow you to demonstrate your ability to handle uncertain circumstances. These exercises are traditionally given at assessment centres, but nowadays may instead be part of the online suite of tests given at application stage. To complete in-tray exercises successfully, you will need to adapt your plan of action and adjust your priorities as new information lands in your email inbox.
Your ability to manage ambiguity may be explicitly tested if you are given a case study exercise. It isn’t unknown for you to be given an initial scenario and a dossier of facts, about which you are asked to make decisions, only to be ‘interrupted’ with a dossier of new information half-way through – new information that may change the initial conclusions you have drawn.
With both the in-tray and the case study task, it would be wise to have a back-up plan in case the assumptions you have made turn out to be mistaken or the situation changes. You may need to think about ways to minimise any potential fallout from your decisions – or at least show that you have weighed up the risks.