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Managing ambiguity: the essential skill for career progression

Can you make the best decision based on the information available? Find out why graduate recruiters value the ability to manage ambiguity.

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.

This competency is particularly important in complex, fast-changing environments, such as the retail sector. For example, a 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 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.

How to show graduate recruiters that you are capable of managing ambiguity

Think of examples you could give at 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 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, when you did work experience, were you given unclear instructions that you then had to clarify? 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?

If you feel that you could have coped with the situation you faced better, say so, and explain how. Employers are interested in what you learned from your experience as well as how you handled the situation at the time.

Prepare to be asked how you cope in a crisis. 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?

Take a flexible approach to assessment exercises such as the e-tray exercise. You will need to adapt your plan of action and adjust your priorities as new information lands in your email inbox.

Hedge your bets and have a back-up plan. Ambiguity involves an element of risk – what if 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.

Be prepared for your interviewer to give you the chance to ask some questions. By asking the right questions, you can show how you set about clarifying ambiguous situations. You need to be able to assess what information is relevant and how to express your question in order to get it. So do ask detailed questions about the graduate training scheme (if that information is not already available), but don’t quiz your prospective employer about holiday entitlement – even if that’s all you really want to know.

The graduate recruitment process can be confusing in itself, so if you can handle that you’re well placed to handle uncertainty in the workplace. Students and graduates may find themselves grappling with ambiguity if they receive two job offers and don’t know which one to go for, or have to try to keep one job offer open while waiting to find out if they will receive others.