Navigating the sea of ambiguity

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One of the first major leadership lessons I learned was how to handle a situation where I didn’t have all the information. On my first few reviews, the area I got cited for improving was ‘Dealing with Ambiguity’. The feedback I received (but I wasn’t ready to hear) was that I waited too long and gathered too much information before acting. Sound familiar?

I loved looking at my store budget, finding trends, and making financial decisions based on my analysis (and gut feeling). Honestly I was good at it, my plans and budgets fell within two percent of actual performance and I was incredibly good at running tight expenses. I failed to see this over analysis as an opportunity for growth. I actually thought of this as a strength. That was until I encountered a few situations where my over analysis didn’t save me.

Managing people is very different than managing budgets. Personnel issues have more gray to them than a red or black. Eventually I found myself dealing with performance problems like staff not following supervisors’ directions and personality conflicts. How does a manager deal with two conflicting stories about how individuals get along? Who do you believe? How do you distill things down to behaviors that can be managed?

During my first couple years in leadership I learned lessons as a manager, not a member of the team. I had to define expectations, remain consistent with other managers, and be the enforcer (no onsite HR for our team, managers did this). I needed to talk to my peers about their situations and learn how to make it clear how we operated. Clarity was one of the first tools I developed to deal with ambiguity. Setting clear expectations was a valuable leadership lesson that made our team better.

My second lesson came when I was an operations manager. Our building production levels relied heavily on the performance of my department and the manager that was training me was tied up in a meeting he could not get out of. I needed to lead a team and make decisions in an area I didn’t fully understand and risk throwing the building performance off. How do you make critical decisions without information and even a clue how to use the systems?

Ask. For. Help. I spent that hour talking to several team members (whom I managed) that were knowledgeable in the systems, sought their feedback, and asked them for clarity on how different options would affect work flow. I was in a situation where I had limited use of my analytical ability, but needed to get help putting together whatever pieces I could. Leadership lesson number two for me was don’t be the expert, ask those who are and make decisions based on that.

The hardest part for me was that it felt like I was not in control, not making the most accurate decisions and not influencing the operation enough. When I looked at it from another angle though, dealing with the ambiguity of the situation called for me to find the experts, have them weigh in and direct the operation rather than doing the operation. I also learned that’s what leadership is, not being the expert but leading a team that had members that were better than me at certain things. I didn’t have to be an expert, I just needed to recognize those who were and utilize their ability.

When I was younger, I struggled with navigating situations where I didn’t have all the answers. But by pushing myself through the situations I gained momentum and experiences that allowed me to work through the ambiguity and gain a healthier leadership perspective. I did eventually turn the ‘area of opportunity’ to a strength. Now, I leverage that confidence in working with very ambiguous environments like coaching and entrepreneurship. Change your perspective and it changes your outcome for the better.

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2 Responses to Navigating the sea of ambiguity

  1. Cat : Straight Talking Ginger September 2, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

    Love the honesty of your post Jason, you made some great points. As the leader you don’t have to have all the answers but you can lead your team to find them…great insight. Great post!

    • Jason E. Mueller (@QuirkyOptimist) September 2, 2015 at 12:40 pm #

      Thanks, Cat. Much appreciated. Yes, I try to be honest about my experiences and sometimes I wish I made better decisions sooner but it’s all the learning process. Just happy I can share the lessons now and hope it helps others be better leaders.

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