Managing Ambiguity

Why is uncertainty and managing ambiguity stressful? Uncertainty is stressful because of the fact that it is the unknown. The only certainty is that life is uncertain! That’s probably a phrase that you have heard more than once, specially recently. We all know it, but do we truly believe it? Do we strive to control the uncontrollable and how can we feel in control in uncertain times?

This time we are looking specifically at managing ambiguity. You may have hard of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity). While the focus of all the recent blogs is on uncertainty, ambiguity is an equally important. If something is ambiguous it means having more than one possible meaning, and therefore possibly causing confusion. The less information the we have, the more irrational and erratic our decisions become. As the uncertainty of the scenarios increased, the more our brains shift control over to the limbic system, the place where emotions, such as anxiety and fear, are generated.

How can we manage ambiguity?

When faced with uncertainty, our brain is pushing us to overreact and fall back on that limbic system. To conquer this you need to develop emotional intelligence or emotional quotion (EQ) to manage ambiguity. To improve your EQ you have to become good at making decisions in the face of uncertainty, despite our every instinct telling us not to. As we mentioned before, having a lack of, or conflicting information can force us to make poor, ill-concieved decisions, so fighting that is very important when facing abiguity.

It may seem impossible when your judgment is clouded by your emotions, however there are some proven strategies which can help you overcome this. Your first effort would be to quiet the limbic system and manage stress, and there are a few ways to do this; inner smile breath, tactical breathing and body reset. I will show you how to execute these instant stress relievers here.

Other proven strategies you can use to improve your EQ are:

  • Quiet the limbic system – manage stress
  • Admit what you don’t know and then get back to people when you do
  • Stay positive. Take a look at Uncertainty blog 3 where we talk about mindset
  • Embrace and accept what you can’t control, focus on what you can control
  • Decide on and focus on what matters
  • Let go of perfection
  • Have contingency, always have a plan B
  • Let go of the past, take the lessons forward and let go of the emotion
  • Breathe!

This blog has been all about managing ambiguity. See my other blogs about uncertainty. Just click the links below.


Why is uncertainty stressful? Uncertainty is stressful because of the fact that it is the unknown. The only certainty is that life is uncertain! That’s probably a phrase that you have heard more than once, specially recently. We all know it, but do we truly believe it? Do we strive to control the uncontrollable and how can we feel in control in uncertain times?

What is a mindset?

Your mindset is the way you think or perceive things, your outlook on life and yourself. It’s your general attitude to what shapes your thought habits, and these habits consequently impact the way you make sense of the world and how you think about you. Having a positive mindset is extremely important when it comes to stress and uncertainty.

Not everybody’s mindset is the same. What you might personally find stressful, someone else might not. It might be a good idea to look to other people in times of stress to see how they would perceive it. How would they deal with it? Why don’t they find it stressful? Be influenced by other people’s mindsets to change your perspective!

Developing a positive mindset

  • Change your perspective – speak to colleagues or friends, use their experiences and mindset to change your own.
  • Get rid of any negative self talk – what are the negative things you are telling yourself and how can you change them?
  • Develop a positive attutide

Take this peom for example. Read it through.


Now read it with the lines from bottom to top. You see how important words are and how they make you feel? How changing the words can change your mindset?

Developing a positive attitude stress

Stop catastrophising – are you turning something into an “end of the world” situation? Think of the last time you were worried. Did the thing you were worried about happen? If it did was it as bad as you thought? Probably not. We can have a tendency to blow things out of proportion and put unnecessary strain on oursleves. All you end up doing is adding to your stress.

Is there any part of the situation you can control? If there is do what you can to manage the situation in the best way possible. Focus on what is in your area of control and responsibility. Learn to let go of the things out of your control.

Change those negative thoughts into something positive. Focus on where you hear the voice. Put your hand in that location. You may feel it in your body or close to it. Now see if you recognise the voice. IS it your voice or that of someone you know?  Now change it to a really silly voice, like Donald Duck or something and move it away from you.  Can you still take yourself seriously?  Of course not.  Now use that technique whenever you notice that unhelpful self criticism creeping back in.

Positive affirmations can reinforce a positive image of yourself. Ask yourself what are you good at? What dare you doing well at the moment in your job or otherwise? What happens in your mind is reflected on your body. So feeling grateful for what you have at uncertain times and reminding yourself about the good things is a step forward to gaining some control over yourself and your situation, especially when you’re feeling anxious or uncertain about things.

This blog has been all about mindset. See my other blogs about uncertainty.

Reduce Stress

Why does uncertainty cause stress? Uncertainty causes stress because of the fact that it is the unknown. The only certainty is that life is uncertain! That’s probably a phrase that you have heard more than once, specially recently. We all know it, but do we truly believe it? Do we strive to control the uncontrollable and how can we feel in control in uncertain times?

The key to making changes is to first recognise that we are feeling stressed. Keeping a journal can really help. By writing down the information surrounding a stressful event we get clarity and understanding around what made it stressful for us.

Keep a journal and note:

  • Triggers – what happened
  • Behaviours – how did you react both physically and mentally
  • Circumstances – surrounding the event
  • Note physical signs of stress

If writing is not something you enjoy a text or recorded note on your smart phone will work equally well.

Short Term Strategies

The best thing you can the minute you are aware that you feel stressed is to take some good deep breaths deep into your belly. Remembers Primatives Amn’s Response to Stress for Part 1? Takeing a deep breath sends messages to the brain that there is nothing to worry about. It tells your body to start resetting, which can take up to an hour. When you are stuck in fight or flight mode you physically cannot take a deep breath because everything is tense, so the body knows that, the fact you can take a deep breath, everything is resolvable.

For some ideas on breathing and other exercises please do take a look at this video.

Longer Term Strategies

It is useful to challenge your thoughts and remind yourself of other times when things have worked out ok or when the things you have been worried about have not come to pass.

Think of the situation that you are finding stressful:

  • What signs might you be aware of?
    • Interrupted sleep patterns
    • Feeling on edge
    • Feeling inexplicably angry or tearful for example
  • What changes could you make?
    • Physical changes like breathing deeply
    • Mindset changes – we will cover more about those in part 3
  • What would be the consequences of the changes?
    • How might the changes help you feel more resourceful?

It is useful to refer to your journal notes when thinking this through and write down your answers to the above questions. I am sure you know the saying “Do what you have always done and you will get what you have always got!” So do something differently, make a change and you will change the outcome.

In other words change your behaviour!

This blog has been all about reducing stress. See my other blogs about uncertainty.

Why is Uncertainty Stressful?

Why is uncertainty stressful? Uncertainty is stressful because of the fact that it is the unknown. The only certainty is that life is uncertain! That’s probably a phrase that you have heard more than once, specially recently. We all know it, but do we truly believe it? Do we strive to control the uncontrollable and how can we feel in control in uncertain times?

Firstly a Note on Stress

Definition of stress

Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demands placed on them.  It arises when they perceive that they are unable to cope with those demands.  It is not a disease, but if stress is intense and goes on for some time, it can lead to mental or physical ill health, EG; depression, nervous breakdown, heart disease or other physical ailments.*

What is Pressure?

Pressure is often used interchangeably with stress but actually the two words have quite different meanings.  Pressure is in fact a positive aspect of life and work for most people. Many of us need to have standards, targets and deadlines to push us towards good performance. Pressure is what most people feel as the need to perform – and everyone has an optimum level of pressure that brings about their best performance. It can be seen as pressure when you feel that it is achievable. You might have to work hard, take some risks, challenge yourself, change or accept new things – but it is manageable. You feel a level of control over the situation.

Of course what feels like pressure for one person can feel like stress to another.  Too much and you can burn out, not enough and you can rust out!

In other words, pressure is good, stress is bad!

Our brains give us fits when facing uncertainty because they’re wired to react to it with fear because it is unknown and uncontrollable. When this happens our bodies go into the stress response. We need engage the rational brain to reduce stress and convince ourselves that uncertainty is normal and manageable. Our stress response is hard wired into our bodies.

Primitive Man’s Response to Stress

Why uncertainty is stressful

  • The front of the brain receives stimulus from eyes, ears etc.- aware of danger.
  • The hypothalamus of the brain activates.
  • The pituitary gland releases hormones.
  • The involuntary nervous system sends signals via nerves to various parts of the body.
  • This causes the adrenal glands to release hormones; adrenalin, nor-adrenalin and cortisones.

These lead to the other changes:

  • Mentally alert – senses activated.
  • Breathing rate speeds up –nostrils and air passages in lungs open wider to get air in more quickly.
  • Heartbeat speeds up and blood pressure rises.
  • Liver releases sugar, cholesterol and fatty acids into the blood to supply quick energy to the muscles.
  • Sweating it increases to help cool if the body.
  • Blood clotting ability increases, preparing for possible injury.
  • Muscles of bladder and bowel openings contract and non-lifesaving activity of body systems ceases temporarily.
  • Blood is diverted to the muscles and muscle fibres tense ready for action.
  • Immunity responses decrease. This is useful in short term to allow a massive response by body. It is harmful over a long period.

The “fight or flight” response is easily recognized in a fear provoking situation. This is how the body goes into lifesaving mode.  Very appropriate for primitive man, but what about humans today, living in this always on culture and the uncertainty of the current pandemic?

This blog has been all about setting the scene and understanding why uncertainty is so stressful. See my other blogs about uncertainty.

With the current Covid-19 Pandemic, life is more uncertain than ever before, especially for employees. So what can you, the employer do, to support employees during this uncertain time? It’s all about embracing uncertainty.

I was listening to the BBC news the other week. I was particularly drawn to a story about a bakery that had managed to reopen, even with the 2 metre distancing rules.  They had one major challenge. One area of production required two people to be working in close proximity at all times.  Management couldn’t come up with a solution to this problem.

Overcoming Challenges

What did they do?  They asked their employees to get creative and think of ways round the problem, so that they could reopen.

The solution: A husband and wife worked for the company in different areas of the business. They lived together so the social distancing did not apply. They were happy manage that particular part of the production on a temporary basis. Problem solved!

Engage with Employees

In these challenging times, many companies are facing a restructure or administration. As a leader, you may feel solutions have to come from the top. Perhaps telling employees just how uncertain the future of the company is, might make them anxious or stressed. You want to protect them. That is understandable.

In reality they are probably already worried about the future. Lack of communication usually leads to speculation and greater levels of anxiety and stress. Recognise that it is a difficult time and encourage employees to think about what “surviving-well” might look like.

Be honest and consistent with them. Tell them exactly what you do and don’t know. Tell them what the organisation is struggling with. Facilitate open forums for employee input.  Give them time to mull over the challenges and collectively come up with solutions.

There is no guarantee, but there is a chance that, like the bakery, their collective creativity will find a solution that might just solve the problem.

Focus on areas that they can influence. Remember to share what is positive as well as what is challenging. Make sure to recognise their hard work and resilience during “tough time”. Employees need positive reinforcement more than ever.  If they are working remotely, they don’t have the usual physical ques and casual conversations that tell them they are doing well.

Embrace new ways of doing things and be open to all ideas. Be as flexible as possible. Enable employees to juggle work, life and family commitments in a way that works for everyone.

Communication is Key

Communication is always recognised as being critical, but often underestimated and inadequate.  It is easy to get bogged down in the challenges and forget to tell employees what is going on.

  • Communicate with employees often.
  • Use a variety of media.
  • Present to the whole company, divisions and teams at different times and in different ways
  • Enable forums for Q&A.
  • Make sure solutions are captured, input is recognised and ideas are met with an open mind.
  • Send updates on items discussed.
  • Throw out old expectations and create new ones.

Risk Assessment

Carry out a risk assessment across all levels of the organisation and ensure that employees are engaged as part of the process. Plan for specific scenarios before they happen! Communicate early and often. This is a must do even for sole traders and micro businesses.  It allows the possibility of a Plan B, minimises the impact of risk and takes advantage of opportunities.

Lead by Example

How you react will influence how employees perceive the situation. Be the steady helm to lead through the troubled waters.

The language you use is particularly important.  Any attachment to certainty will increase stress and anxiety. Use of the words like “hoped for”, “expected outcomes”,  “right” and “wrong”, will stifle creativity.

Listen and pay close attention to your employees.  Use words like “might”,” possibility”,” I wonder” and “maybe”. You might wonder if a particular scenario is workable, and you might wonder if that is the right solution.  It might be right, it might be wrong.  That’s the thing about uncertainty – you can’t be sure.  Keep an open mind.

Create and share key learning moments. Change your mind if you need to.  Employees will understand if you communicate. This is all about your personal mindset. Let go of the need for certainty and embrace the new.

Employees are our greatest asset. They can help us find solutions for readiness, response and recovery. The instincts and actions that will see us through the current global crisis will also make us stronger as we face the longer term challenges.

I have a book coming out in 28th September in collaboration with Charlotte Valeur. It is called Effective Directors QTA. In my section on health and wellbeing I talk more about the importance of supporting employees, giving you key questions to ask to improve your wellbeing strategy. Click here for a copy.