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Education competencies: Dealing with ambiguity

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success. View all competencies .


Can effectively cope with change; can shift gears comfortably; can decide and act without having the total picture; can comfortably handle risk and uncertainty.

Proficiency level

Level 1: Basic Level 2: Intermediate Level 3: Advanced Level 4: Expert
Copes with change and shifts gears when necessary Effectively copes with change and shifts gears comfortably Anticipates impact of change; plans how to shift gears Anticipates impact of change, and directs self and others in smoothly shifting gears
Suggests a plan of action without having the total picture Decides and acts without having the total picture Uses ingenuity to compensate without having the total picture Uses ingenuity in dealing with ambiguous situations, and guides others to cope effectively
Tolerates risk and uncertainty Handles risk and uncertainty comfortably Rises to the challenge, accepting risk and uncertainly as normal Thrives on situations involving risk and uncertainty

Overdoing dealing with ambiguity

  • May move to conclusions without enough data
  • May fill in gaps by adding things that aren’t there
  • May frustrate others by not getting specific enough
  • May undervalue orderly problem solving
  • May reject precedent and history
  • May err toward the new and risky at the expense of proven solutions
  • May overcomplicate things

Essential questions

To improve your proficiency, ask yourself the following questions on a regular basis:

  • What decision must I make to minimize risk in spite of not having all the information?
  • What new project can I undertake today, even though I have other things in the works?
  • How can I prepare others right now for the impact of an anticipated change?
  • What disjointed task or project can I organize?
  • Is there someone with whom I must “clear the air” or make amends?
  • What big task can I break down into smaller tasks to facilitate its completion?

To avoid overdoing dealing with ambiguity, ask yourself:

  • Am I making decisions too quickly without a reasonable amount of data?
  • Am I trying to reinvent the wheel rather than using what I know?
  • Am I overanalyzing a problem?

Interview questions

  • Tell me about a time when it was important to maintain your productivity and quality in spite of significant changes at work. What were the changes? How did you handle the situation? What were the results?
  • Sometimes, we have to make decisions or take action without having all the information or the total picture. Describe a time when you experienced this kind of ambiguity. Why was it important to act? How did you cope with it?
  • Some situations present higher levels of risk and uncertainty than others. Please describe a situation in which you were able to function effectively despite the risk and uncertainty it presented. What made the situation risky or uncertain? What did you do to handle the situation? What results did you achieve?

Learning on the job

Learning on your own: These self-development remedies will help you build your skill(s).

  • Try incrementalism: Make a series of small decisions, get instant feedback, make course corrections, get more data, and move forward. Repeat the process until the bigger problem is in hand. Do small things quickly, and be willing to take a little heat if the decision needs to be modified.
  • Overcome the need for perfection: Try to decrease the need to be right all the time. Worry less about what people will say. Spend less time waiting for the perfect solution or gathering all the data to make the perfect decision in order to avoid criticism. Reach a balance between thinking and taking action.
  • Become more comfortable being a pioneer: Explore new ground; go places and do things about which you have little knowledge.
  • Organize: Set tight priorities and focus on them. Be disciplined and don’t get bogged down in trivia.
  • Define the problem: Ask questions and determine the causes of the problem before attempting to craft solutions.
  • Visualize the problem: Put complex processes and problems in a visual format, such as a storyboard or a flow chart. Make a list of pros and cons.
  • Develop a philosophical stance toward failure or criticism: Increase your ability to learn from your mistakes by designing immediate feedback loops. Learn from mistakes and move on.
  • Deflate stress: Analyze what makes you anxious, and short-circuit the process before it takes hold. Drop the issue for a short while if you get emotional.
  • Embrace change: Be willing to let go of one way of doing things to try something new. Invite new ideas, and experiment until you are comfortable with change.
  • Move on to new projects without having finished others: Allow yourself to feel good about fixing mistakes and moving on, rather than being motivated solely by finishing everything you start.

Learning from develop-in-place assignments: These part-time develop-in-place assignments will help you build your skill(s).

  • Go on a trip to a foreign country you’ve not visited before.
  • Relaunch an existing program or project that is not going well.
  • Manage a temporary group of resisting people in an unpopular project.
  • Assemble a team of diverse people to accomplish a difficult task.
  • Take on a task you dislike or hate to do.
  • Build a multifunctional project team to tackle a common problem.

Learning more from your plan: These additional remedies will help make this development plan more effective for you.

  • Learning to learn better:
    • Monitor yourself more closely and get off your autopilot. Look at each situation from a fresh perspective. Ask yourself questions consistently, and try new solutions for old problems.
    • Be alert to learnings when faced with transitions. Review what is similar and what is different before transitioning between old and new situations. Determine which past lessons and rules apply and which need to be changed.
    • Teach others something you don’t know well. Pick something new, different, and unfamiliar.
    • Put yourself in situations that call for your weaknesses. Find opportunities to develop counter-coping skills (e.g. if you are shy, go to a function where you don’t know anyone).
    • Break up your work routine when you are blocked. Incorporate dissimilar tasks, activities, and rest breaks when you come to a roadblock.
    • Examine why you are blocked on a key issue. Ask why these things are holding you back. Look for opportunity to move beyond them, and learn to do something different.
  • Learning from experience, feedback, and other people:
    • Be a student of others. Study their behavior and what’s effective and ineffective. Adapt what you learn to improve yourself.
    • Learn from bad situations. Be resourceful and use what you can. Determine how the situation came about, learn from any mistakes, and integrate what you learn into future behavior.
  • Learning from courses:
    • Take a strategic course. Stretch your thinking to prepare for and anticipate future challenges.
    • Be willing to learn. Be open to learning new lessons and behaviors. Ask many questions, and reflect on what you learn.

Recommended readings

  • Anderson, Dean, and Linda S. Ackerman Anderson.Beyond Change Management: Advanced Strategies for Today’s Transformational Leaders.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 2001.
  • Black, J. Stewart, and Hal B. Gregersen.Leading Strategic Change: Breaking Through the Brain Barrier.Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times/Prentice Hall, 2002.
  • Burke, W. Warner, and William Trahant with Richard Koonce.Business Climate Shifts: Profiles of Change Makers.Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000.
  • Chowdhury, Subir.Management 21C:Someday We’ll All Manage ThisWay.Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times/Prentice Hall, 2000.
  • Gutzman, Alexis D.Unforeseen Circumstances.New York: AMACOM, 2002.
  • Kotter, John P., and Dan S. Cohen.The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations.Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
  • Luecke, Richard.Managing Change and Transition.Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2003.
  • Macdonald, John.Calling a Halt to Mindless Change.New York: AMACOM, 1998.
  • Millemann, Mark, Linda Gioja, and Richard Tanner Pascale.Surfing the Edge of Chaos: The Laws of Nature and the New Laws of Business.New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.
  • Newman, Paul, and A.E. Hotchner.Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good.New York: Doubleday, 2003.
  • O’Toole, James.Leading Change.Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.

Next steps

Copyright © 1992, 1996, 2001-2003 by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This work is derived from the LEADERSHIP ARCHITECT® Competency Library developed and copyrighted by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo for Lominger Limited, Inc.

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success.

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