Today’s guest post is by Jason Seiden, author of the award-winning “How to Self-Destruct: Making the Least of What’s Left of Your Career,” and “Super Staying Power: What You Need to Become Valuable and Resilient at Work.”

Younger generations are growing up less able to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity than older ones. This isn’t a knock on Gen Y, it’s a universal truth: On the whole, each generation seeks to provide a “better,” more assured life for the one that follows. In a very simple example, consider the pioneer who doesn’t know where he will live when he arrives in a new land. The first thing he does is build a house, thus eliminating much uncertainty from his offspring’s lives. Within modern society, we don’t have to worry as much about protection from the elements, but we find other ways to remove ambiguity from our world.

Our increasingly test-based educational system often explicitly eliminates uncertainty from classrooms. Structured, facilitated play activities eliminate ambiguity from children’s interactions. Religious and political voices restrict our choices through legal and moral pressure. Where uncertainty has not yet been eliminated directly, society has created such a vast network of teachers, specialists, therapists and over-involved parents that for many, ambiguity is no longer seen as a problem to be solved by me, it’s feedback that someone else didn’t fully do their job … and a sign that I need outside help. That’s a problem.

Actually, that’s 10 problems. Here is what I predict for corporate America should our unwillingness to handle ambiguity and uncertainty increase further:

  • Animosity between workers and bosses in business will increase. Ambiguity often looks pretty darn black-and-white to the worker who doesn’t see the nuance. And when workers think management is overanalyzing/dragging its feet/fumbling a simple problem, they lose patience with, and lose faith in, management’s ability to perform.
  • Many younger employees will “opt out” of a corporate system they don’t fully understand. This will ultimately prolong their own learning curve as they try to re-create a “better” structure without realizing that a number of the problems with our current structure will exist in any system populated by humans because the problems stem from our human nature, not our system design.
  • Leadership will suffer. Take ambiguity away from leadership, and you take away tough decisions and responsibility. What you’re left with is overpaid administration. That’s the image many young professionals today seem to have of leadership, so that’s what they’ll create.
  • The Applization of design will get more expensive, as companies that try to build simple products with minimal learning curves find they lack employees who can accurately predict real-world user behavior.
  • Individuals will double down on what they are good at, which in this case is solving problems by working HARDER BETTER FASTER SMARTER. This will rob many companies of their “manager class,” as people who stay in the system opt for specialist roles rather than managerial roles that come with more — yep, you guessed it — ambiguity.
  • Career paths will become more fixed. Our ability to process ambiguity extends to our ability to assess other people. Already, resume readers look for specific patterns, jettisoning capable applicants with “non-conforming” histories. This trend will continue to amplify for awhile.
  • Companies will ruthlessly centralize their decision-making functions, concentrating power with a few select people who “get it.”
  • Individuals will become more system dependent, just as people who aren’t good at division become more dependent on their calculators. This will create feelings of frustration and resentment.
  • Stress levels will explode further. If you think it’s bad now, just wait. There is a lot of unresolved fear out there. Mix in a dash of helplessness (which is a often a synonym for “unable to handle ambiguity”) and you’ve got a potent mix.

Fortunately, these problems are also self-correcting — if we allow the process to unfold and work itself out. These trends won’t suck in everyone. and as the pendulum begins to swing, a countervailing force will create resistance. This force won’t stop the shift, but it will eventually slow it and bring everything back the other way, toward individualization. But can we can handle the ambiguity inherent in that process?

Image credit, kaisersosa67, via iStock

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31 Responses to “Why we’ll miss ambiguity”

  1. They'll have to handle the ambiguity because it will become necessary to. In the meantime, it will be very unpleasant. I also think it will cause a greater number of people to become entrepreneurs, which is a field in which hope is found in ambiguity.

  2. The other question is: What are the unintended consequences of eliminating (or trying to eliminate)ambiguity from our lives? Ambiguity is not necessarily a negative.

  3. This is awesome and very insightful. I believe the liability of not growing up developing strong interpersonal relationships will be and is the bane of Gen Y. So, we can help, and we will.They need to be willing and eager to add that to their repetoire!

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  5. [...] SmartBlog on Workforce » Blog Archive » Why we’ll miss ambiguity – view page – cached About SmartBrief | Advertise | Find/Post Jobs | Industries We Cover | Partner With Us October 05, 2009 — From the page [...]

  6. merom klein says:

    Right on! As stressful as it is, we've got to handle ambiguity and uncertainty better. And conflict.

    Back in the olden days, when many of us boomers were taught about org design, we were taught, "A well-designed organization minimizes role conflict and the grey areas that leave responsibility, authority, career ladders up for grabs." Today, that's rubbish — on the heap with our 8-track tape decks.

    It takes courage to operate with the kind of ambiguity and uncertainty you describe, to solve more complex problems with more elegant solutions and to pressure-test solutions with more than "the boss says so."

    Leaders add value when they build the courage that's needed to handle ambiguity, uncertainty, conflict — and become administrators when they design jobs with so little creative tension that no one ruffles anyone else's feathers. Fortunately, building that kind of courage is a skill that can be taught and learned.

  7. Gil Brady says:

    The skill of handling ambiguity can be taught. I agree with the article in the sense that the current education system is designed to provide a structured and non-ambiguous experience for students. This results in measurable outcomes but poor preparation for an increasingly complex world. Our organization, Relationship Impact, focuses on providing teams and individuals with skills which allow for the development of an appreciation for ambiguity. In addition, this complex work world will increasingly demand an ability to develop adaptive capacity in order to deal with the ambiguity.
    The author is mistaken to think an employer can choose whether or not certain employees will deal with ambiguity, this belief has led to the current lack of leaders in the workplace. The challenge is to provide skills early on that will enable these young workers to see the excitement and learning potential of ambiguity.

  8. EmmJay says:

    Saying Gen Y is not adept at "leadership" is like saying your kid is not good at playing "chess" — with a chequered board, black and white empires and all.

    Give him a computer with a virtual chess board and a virtual player on the other side, he'll beat his opponent at the game. I think Gen Y is more accustomed and adept at handling ambiguity than Gen Xes and the baby boomers. Ambiguity in school, college education doesn't particularly 'prepare' them for the real world either, they join the workforce working with people twice or three times their age, they're great at not only learning about the old and outdated but also at figuring out the new and not-here-yet technologies that power our tomorrow.

    Having worked with Gen Xers and Gen Yers, I see Gen Yers needing less direction, leadership and motivation to accomplish tasks – small or big. Not the same with Gen Xers who will only perform the task if it is part of the accepted norm, laid out procedure in the handbook-of-tasks or if their 'superior officer' directed them to do so.

    Now if you said Gen Y's leadership style isn't the same or isn't really suited for Gen Xers, I'd be with you 100%.

  9. Daniel Thompson says:

    One thing I disagree with is the religious pressure you mention. While I agree that there has been increased testing, structured play activities, and political pressure, I'm not sure that we can say increased religious pressure is part of the problem. Studies consistently show that Americans are becoming less and less religious, especially among the younger folks.

  10. Dan McCarthy says:

    As always, Jason writes a provocative post and gets us thinking.

    However, I really need to take issue with the declaration: “Younger generations are growing up less able to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity than older ones. This isn’t a knock on Gen Y, it’s a universal truth…”

    Actually, the ability to deal with ambiguity is and always has been a rare ability and one of the hardest competencies to learn. It’s not a generational issue at all.

    Lominger, a division of Korn/Ferry, has conducted extensive research on the average skill rating and developmental difficulty for 67 competencies. The competency “dealing with ambiguity” has one of the lowest skill ratings of the general population of individual contributors, managers, and executives. It’s also rated as one of, if not the #1, hardest competency to learn. There are no significant differences when broken down by age, race, gender, or geography.

    Studies show that 90% of the problems of middle managers and executives are ambiguous – it’s neither clear what the problem is nor what the solution is.

    Success will come to those who can comfortably make more good decisions than bad with less than all of the information, in less time, and with few or no precedents on how it was solved before.

  11. Bryan Stewart says:

    Inisghtful post. I see much of this everyday as one of those that I believe "gets it" in my workplace. I would also propose that the inability to work in the "grey zones" that so dominate our modern business environment also results in a culture of fear and dependence on others to solve problems and make things work.

  12. paul roemer says:

    I'll miss their apathy–Generation Why?

  13. Juliana Bonomo says:

    I learned from an experienced HR colleague of mine that "ambiguity is to embrace and not to solve". I don't think the issue is just related to 'Gen Y' but to every individual in the current business environment. There are huge human issues driving uncertainty and ambiguity, the beauty of this theme is to be able to assume those feelings and think of the best ways to deal with it.

    Juliana Bonomo

  14. Jason Seiden says:

    @Robyn—Agreed, we'll likely see more entrepreneurship… unfortunately, I think we'll also find more people taking their shingle down shortly after setting it up and returning to the corporate world. There is hope in entrepreneurship, but also cold realities, and I think the learning curve people are walking into when they go this route is longer than most people's cash flow can support. Of course, there will also be a few winners…

    @Michael—I think ambiguity is only a negative if you live in fear. When one is open, curious, and full of wonder, then ambiguity becomes something to explore, maybe even have fun with… a call to come build something new. When people are fearful, ambiguity begets battle; when people are open, ambiguity begets constructive, playful competition.

    @Deborah—Thank you. I think we'll find unexpected benefits from younger generations growing up with more "loose ties"… sure, they'll spend time sifting through those connections to find a few close friends, that's not bad, that's just inverted from how previous generations did it. And I gotta tell ya, thanks to Fbook and Twitter, when I travel, it's become pretty easy for me to find dinner company when I've needed it—that's a big plus of having many "weak" relationships!

    @Merom—Well said. Too bad teaching courage isn't both possible AND easy…

    @Gil—Sounds like you do good work! I think a mistake we keep making these days is telling our capable, younger peers to expect ambiguity to always be exciting. It's not. New discoveries can be fun and exciting, sure, but the process of getting there is often stressful, uncertain, and frustrating. Learning not to fear prolonged uncertainty is quite different from learning to find joy in ambiguity; hopefully, we will do a better job at teaching both sides of the equation moving forward. It sounds like you are helping us take an important step in this direction.

    @EmmJay—I'm also glad your experiences have put you in contact with younger employees who are good at handling ambiguity. That's good. Too bad your experience with older workers hasn't been the same.

    @Daniel—I appreciate your point. My experience with shifts like the ones you mention (and that Bill Maher mentions in Religulous) is that they are often accompanied by an increasing intensification amongst the opposition… I think we'd be hard pressed to make the case that we don't have people today trying to use religious orthodoxy as a way of combating ambiguity for society as a whole.

    @Dan McCarthy—Great point. The ability to handle ambiguity is rare indeed. And if we go back 100 years, I think we'll find America was in a very similar position then as it is now, dealing with a lingering economic headache, ill-begun foreign wars, immigration issues, and the like. Truly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


  15. Jason Seiden says:

    @Bryan—(shudder)… turns out, when you put a comment between less than/greater than tags, it doesn't appear!

  16. Trace Cohen says:

    As one of the only Gen-Yers to comment on this article the statement "This isn’t a knock on Gen Y, it’s a universal truth" is slightly offensive. That is a broad generalization that lumps together a lot of unrelated groups of aspiring young professionals and is more or less demeaning.

    Ambiguity will never be eliminated. If you're referring to the fact that we can simply Google something and get answers is wrong because in fact those are not answers but results populated by us. In your example of a pioneer who has to build his house when it goes to a new land doesn't apply to us or this as only 20% of grads last year landed a job and the majority went to live with their parents.

    The foundations which we lived on for so long as not as strong as they used to be. My personal feeling is that ambiguity will never disappear because our parents and other generations just don't understand us and never will fully. This is where the problem lies as we are open to rapid change and always being connected which isn't supported by the current system we reside in. So my advice to everyone is to try and stop suppressing our actions and start to embrace them as they will become standard one day.

  17. Bob Landham says:

    Great thoughts on ambiguity. Leadership is more a journey than a destination. I suggest 'nuance' may be another concept fading from the leadership skill sets.

  18. I think we've been moving in the direction of less ambiguity for several generations now, starting after WWII when we took a more rigid military-type structure and applied it to our schools and workplace. We don't teach critical thinking skills in our schools or universities, which is very important in dealing with ambiguity, and people who excel in a merit-based education system are not necessarily able to handle ambiguity. At the same time, there does seem to be a culture of innovation in this country, especially in certain industries/careers, that may not translate to all employees in a system, but at least enough to keep us on the leading edge (so far anyway).

  19. I do not agree that the skill of handling ambiguity can be taught. Two reasons. We cannot teach about ambiguity in an intellectual way or as a chapter in a text book. So this means that we would need to teach people how to handle ambiguity while they are actually experiencing it. Then it is too late because people do not learn well nor change their behavior when they are filled with fear. I believe that the capacity to deal with ambiguity is a function of the degree to which we believe on ourselves and the level of self-confidence we have. This having been said, it would not be a generational issue but rather would vary from individual to individual. I agree with Dan McCarthy : ‘ Success will come to those who can comfortably make more good decisions than bad with less than all of the information, in less time, and with few or no precedents on how it was solved before.’ That takes courage and courage comes from a strong connection to, and belief in, our true self. Not the ego self we portray to others but the true essence of who we are, what we stand for, what our talents are and why the world would be poorer without us. So sad that educational institutions focus too little on developing the emotional aspect of our beings. It’s all about getting high grades and developing intellect. Intellect alone will not help us deal with the ambiguities that we face – and will always face at some time in our lives. In addition if we were taught how to apply whole brain thinking – using the left and the right brain – finding creative solutions in ambiguous situations becomes much easier.

  20. This article lacks sufficient logical underpinnings to be credible.
    Test-based teaching practices are attributed to some of the most innovative and highly performing schools in the country. Not because they teach to standardized testing but because they use assessment as an instrument to understand student understanding and how to adapt their instruction to maximize learning …lest I get pulled into what I suspect is an secondary aspect of the article I’ll move on.
    It seems to me that you are confusing “ambiguity” with attributes that would be better characterized as…
    - critical and creative thinking
    - societal and technological change linked to user centricity
    - business model innovation
    Are we really to believe that a democratiziation of information and centralized decision-making in business coexist as a shared reality – I don’t think so. If you really think top performing companies are moving to greater centralization in decision making you should look at the abundance of literature on employee engagement and commitment that’s been published over the past 5 to 7 years.
    You’re painting a very bleak picture that has little to do with the reality of high performing companies or the next generation of talent.

  21. [...] paste.  The comments listed below are extracted directly from a blog titled SmartBlogs Work Force,  The blog attacks Generation Why (my term) for being ambiguous in the workforce.  It seems to me [...]

  22. Jason Seiden says:

    @Trace—I agree that our foundation now is shifting. It's not clear where it's shifting to, which makes this a very exciting time. And while I wouldn't say that anyone's suppressing you, I would say that no one's going to simply hand over the reigns to the future, either.

    @Bob—My favorite way of staying close to nuance is to pick up a classic, like The Count of Monte Cristo, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or Huck Finn.



    @Dr Sandy—We need a word for facilitating the learning process, because you're right, courage can't be "taught," but it can be learned, and there are things we can do to expedite that learning.

    @Michelle—When US students' critical thinking abilities are compared to students in 29 other industrialized nations, we come in 25th. It's a tough pill to swallow, but I find it reasonable to assume that a system that produces "A" students who can't hold a candle to their international peers very likely will produce many "A" companies that are kidding themselves.

  23. Brian says:

    This one's odd. I don't see this as an ambiguity issue at all. I see it as a leadership hypocrisy issue. "Nuance" is another word for "do as I say, not as I do." Hypocrisy is a cancer spreading throughout leadership levels of all organizations and all generations of workers are rightly frustrated by hypocritical behaviors. To try to explain it away as ambiguity is facile.

  24. First, full disclosure, I'm a Gen-Yer. Thanks for the post and for stirring the way I think about work and ambiguity.

    In thinking about your comment that "Many younger employees will 'opt out' of a corporate system they don’t fully understand," I wonder if this has less to do with our ability to process ambiguity, and more to do with values.

    As I look back on all of the crazy back-room antics of corporations (pick a bank on Wall Street), and the new call for transparency, I see a disconnect. If we want greater honesty, greater transparency, and less wheeling and dealing from the companies we patronize, then that corporate system has to change, at least a little bit.

    In talking with my fellow young professionals, we feel like we want to opt out of a corporate structure not simply because we don’t understand it, but because it doesn’t align with our passion, our priorities, and the way we see business relationships in general. We get that any “better” system we create will have flaws because of human nature, but I don’t think that should keep us from striving to develop a framework that better matches the way we think about business.


  25. Wow, I just realized I can't stand ambiguity and it's been causing me a lot of anxiety. Mostly it comes from not always understanding the extent of my role and what different authority figures mean to me in the workplace. I think the anxiety caused by ambiguity causes a huge loss of productivity.

    Entrepreneurship will probably come out of this (as people have said before me). I know that I feel free from anxiety when I finally do my own creative task (like blogging). But what's more ambiguous than an undefined audience? I see now what you mean about ambiguity breeding ambiguity…

    So, I don't know if it's generational or not…but I am Generation Y…and I am not a fan of ambiguity in the workplace…

    My head hurts. What the heck do we do? ;)

  26. Woops, I linked to the wrong Web site in my last comment. Talk about confused…I don't even know my own Web site anymore…

  27. David Troy says:

    I am a Gen X experienced entrepreneur and manager, and i work with a lot of Gen Y people.

    While it is tempting to make generalizations like this, it's an echo of previous generations bemoaning the state of affairs with the next. Kids today! Get off of my lawn!

    The best way to get people (anyone, any age) to deal with responsibility and ambiguity is to give it to them. Make them responsible. Make them accountable. The rest will follow.

    Gen Y is no more or less adept at coping with reality than any other. Your post more than anything shows your generational bias and potential lack of ability to communicate with younger people.

    Figure out how to engage your Gen Y charges by making them accountable. If they fail, coach them. if they still fail, replace them with ones who don't. They will learn what they need to learn.

    Meantime, stop sounding like a cranky old dude. :)

  28. [...] to “Why we’ll miss ambiguity,” Gen Y can only handle structure: Younger generations are growing up less able to cope with [...]

  29. [...] [...]

  30. Pamela says:

    I once heard someone say that as a leader I need to be "comfortable with ambiguity" and a very dear friend of mine came up with "it is what it is". These 2 statements are some of the best "advice" I've heard in manager training in my 20 years in the workforce.

    I find that making something out of ambiguity is quite stimulating work! ;-)

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