I’m not going to lie to you because if you ask anyone who has worked with me in pressured, ambiguous situations, they’ll tell you I can have controlling and perfectionist tendencies.
However, like many experienced executives, I’m comfortable with the unfamiliar. The unfamiliar would often arise because I was working in health and human services, so being faced with the unfamiliar, became familiar.
It was easier with big, obvious unfamiliarity like responding to organisational restructures, downsizing or the announcement of new CEOs.
Prioritising communication with teams about what was known, encouraging idea sharing and making timely decisions meant I was effectively managing the lack of clarity about what those changes would mean for them.
However, the everyday unfamiliar could fly under my radar. And at other times, in high-stakes projects where the ground around us kept shifting, I could get so focused on getting us through, making sure we didn’t fail, that I internalised information processing and options analysis until there was more information to share with the team.
When information wasn’t shared, people weren’t involved, or decisions were held over until there was more information, the team’s collective creativity and ability to respond were stifled.
But when I noticed what was happening and made the choice to let go, there were often pleasant surprises. People would see something important I had missed or misunderstood. People would come up with creative solutions to what seemed like insurmountable barriers. And I was less stressed and had more of a life. It doesn’t all have to rest on your shoulders – share the load but avoid dumping and running.
Empowering your team with autonomy in ambiguity is comparable to being a master chef. You provide the recipe and overall vision, but you trust your team members to add their own flavours and techniques, intervening only when their actions might deviate from the desired culinary masterpiece.
It’s been reported that Netflix employees are encouraged to take ownership of their work and make decisions independently. However, it is also reported this autonomy is coupled with clear communication about the context, the broader framework people need to work within and processes that check that actions are strategically aligned with Netflix’s vision and values.
If you expect your team to feel safe to experiment and adapt, you must first let them try. As Ernest Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
If you’re still not convinced to let go and guide your team, keep in mind that failing to give your team higher levels of autonomy in ambiguous situations puts you at risk of confirmation bias.
The psychology literature commonly describes this type of bias as seeking or interpreting evidence in ways that are partial to your existing beliefs, expectations, or existing idea.
The old saying that too many cooks spoil the broth is not true when it comes to ambiguity. Tapping into different perspectives helps everyone embrace the unknown.
Try asking the team to explore different scenarios about how they could respond. It’s better to work with them to adapt a plan rather than risk confirmation bias by responding in isolation in the moment.
The key ingredients are to notice the impact of ambiguity, and then make a choice to manage the lack of clarity.