I’ve said for a long time that my favorite colour is grey. That often draws a raised eyebrow or two as it doesn’t, at first glance, seem to be anything too vibrant or dynamic. What I do love about the colour grey is its relationship with the colours black and white. Those two colours are such absolutes and don’t offer any sort of flexibility in how they are going to show up. My erstwhile designer wife might disagree and tell me about colours like dove white, white vanilla or antique white … she doesn’t fool me! She’s just adding colour to white to make it less unyielding and stark.
To me the beauty of the colour grey has always been in how many shades we have to choose from while still retaining its undisputed integrity as grey. It is a symbol of endless possibility when we feel faced with a choice between two polar opposites. I’ve long considered it a strength of mine to look into the divide between “either/or” choices and find creative choices, compromises, the elusive third leg on the stool, find the answer on the edge of the coin, etc.
However, I’ve been doing some self-reflection lately. You may have seen some of it here in posts such as In Between and What Now? where I’ve expressed my thoughts with respect to being in between identities, opportunities, chapters in life, etc. This study has led me to examine the concept of ambiguity and how I lean into, or away from, such situations. As my favourite colour would indicate I like variety and uncertainty, or at least I’ve always professed that it is so. But my lack of comfort with being “in between” belies that it some way.
It turns out that I think it is possible for me to both embrace and to be unsettled by ambiguity. It just depends on the nature of the ambiguity I am facing. It seems to me that there are two forms of ambiguity as follows, and I respond/react to them quite differently:
- Active Ambiguity – this consists of an uncertain situation that demands to be addressed. It is an opportunity or problem that comes to us and we know will progress with or without us. As such if we would like to shape the outcome we have to engage it. It may be difficult, unpleasant, challenging, aspirational, outside our current sphere of knowledge or have any number of other characteristics, but in all cases the outcome is uncertain but something is going to happen.
- Passive Ambiguity – this is an uncertain situation that will remain uncertain into the foreseeable future. It seems to have no attached requirement for resolution. If we don’t address it, it will remain as it currently is or perhaps slowly morph or reveal itself . In many cases, this is because the ambiguity exists only for us, and therefore only we can resolve it.
Dealing with these two types of ambiguity require entirely different approaches. With active ambiguity there is an action orientation as we know that something is in motion that needs our attention, yet there is uncertainty regarding the required approach. It is a place where leaders can appear, bringing many of a myriad of skills and methods such as courage, strength of character, hard work, exploring possibility, facilitation, team building, analytical capabilities, encouragement, etc. When I see this in writing, it sounds like we could sum it up as the characteristics required to meet adversity head on. It feels less like being “in between” and more like “moving forward”.
Passive ambiguity seems like a different sort of animal to me. With active ambiguity, there is something to act upon, and in doing so feel in control. There is a comfort in that! When the ambiguity is passive, there isn’t such an advantage. Not only is there nothing substantial to act against, what may be most notable is what we don’t know. The heart of the ambiguity is that, at least according to the stories we tell ourselves, the situation could turn out okay, or very badly. And then round that out with the perception that when looking around, no one else seems too interested in it. This is really the “in between” state.
It’s not comfortable, and it takes a lot of thought on how to manage through it. In considering a couple of situations in my life, the first thing that I became aware of was it is true that there was a lot I didn’t know. The story I had been telling myself, at first glance, was rich but also tended towards a worst case scenario. I am guilty of filling in the unknown with answers from my own limited perspective. When I realized this, it took me some time to arrive at two really important questions.
How do I want this ambiguity to resolve for me?
What do I need to know before I take any action?
These are questions that are easier to ask than answer. The first question has the risk “be careful what you ask for” attached to it. The second actually requires us to engage with others to fill in the information we are missing, and may require us to be vulnerable in doing so. But without asking, the ambiguity, and associated angst, will remain.
The question for me now is how to apply this awareness of passive ambiguity as a leader. How will I guide a team that feels they are in such a place? How do I help others realize they are facing it? Most importantly, how do our own challenges with passive ambiguity impact our ability to be effective as a leader?