How to Turn Uncertainty at Work Into a Good Thing

ambiguity at work can be a good thingWhen people started leaving their jobs last year, no one knew quite what to expect. Certainly, employers had no idea that an average of 3.95 million people would quit their jobs each month or that a high of 4.5 million people would quit their jobs in November.

There has been a lot of conversation about what’s sparked the Great Resignation. The toll of working through the pandemic from home while taking care of family members has been one explanation. Burnout in industries hard hit by the pandemic like the service industry or healthcare has been another explanation.

What happens when there’s ambiguity in the workplace?

The last two years have been fraught with uncertainty at work. When the pandemic began in 2020, many people lost their jobs — unemployment rose to a level not seen since the 1930s. Others were forced to change the way they worked, either working from home or continuing to work in person during the pandemic. Many employees left work for lockdown only to return to new roles.

There was ambiguity at home as well as we all learned to cope with the pandemic; families saw members (mainly women) leave careers to take care of loved ones, and there have been tensions over how to safely interact. Most impactful of all, there was massive uncertainty about the end of the pandemic. What was coming next?

Uncertainty, according to psychologists, causes an enormous amount of stress in human beings. Research shows that job uncertainty causes more physical and mental health problems than actually losing a job.

However, ambiguity at work  is not necessarily a bad thing — as long as you know how to deal with it productively.

The benefits of ambiguity

Uncertainty may cause stress, but sometimes it has positive effects. For example, ambiguity at work can:

  • Increase motivation: Getting thrown into an uncertain situation without an obvious solution can be a great motivational tool. It keeps you alert and maintains an active problem-solving mindset. For example, at the start of the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020, company leaders found that they had to think on their feet in a way that was new to them, and many business leaders reported that this was invigorating. Training Industry interviewed a cross-section of executives who said that the limits the pandemic put on them forced them to become more creative, communicative, and people-focused as they worked to keep their teams safe and productive.
  • Spark ambition: Ambiguity can make people more innovative and make them consider what’s important to them. Consider some of the workers who left during the Great Resignation; research from McKinsey shows that one third of people who quit in 2021 left their jobs to start their own business, and last year new business applications soared as people found their passions and started to pursue them. (Imagine if you could turn all that entrepreneurship into a benefit to your team!)
  • Build resilience: Handled well, uncertainty can make people tougher and more resilient. Heading into difficult, confusing, or intimidating situations and being successful develops confidence.
  • Develop new skills: Ambiguous situations are a learning tool. They force learners to come up with different ways of working, search for alternative ideas, and try new things.
  • Provide fresh experiences: Ambiguity also means navigating uncharted territory. It means we experience a certain problem or scenario for the very first time. Faced with a new situation, some workers will find their purpose at work.

All of the above are positive experiences, but not every learner will see uncertainty as a motivator on their own. Some will become overwhelmed. Some might burn out. Fortunately, a good L&D program can help a learner face ambiguity in a productive way — and let’s hope many companies step up and help that process occur because many people need additional emotional support now and it’s time to give it.

How can you teach people to handle uncertainty productively?

Your managers probably try to reduce uncertainty in the workplace, but there’s only so much they can control. In fact, recognizing what you can control is actually a pretty big part of learning to handle uncertainty.

By teaching learners the difference between productive worry (i.e., worry over what you can control) and unproductive worry (i.e., worry over what you cannot control), you can take some steps towards helping them identify the things they can control in their own lives and work. For example, they can control their work, how they do their jobs, what they learn, how they interact with co-workers, and the goals they set for themselves. They cannot control their co-workers’ behavior, the job market, or the supply chain.

Let’s look at an example. A team member is in charge of a big project, but it’s going to be overdue because a co-worker didn’t get their work done on time. The team member cannot control the co-worker’s behavior, but they can control the way they communicate the timeline change to their boss. They can also influence the behavior of the rest of the team, and perhaps help the teammate to get their work done on time by assigning someone else to help.

By knowing what they can and cannot control, the team member is able to take an uncertain, frustrating situation, and better understand how to handle it and be a more purposeful leader.

If you’d like more support in how to manage ambiguous situations, please take a look at the Litmos Training Content course Working With Ambiguity – Operating in the Gray. This has more information about decision-making, uncertainty, and learning how to handle situations that arise at work in the face of pandemic-related and now, global conflict-related issues.