“If there’s one thing that’s certain in business, it’s uncertainty”– Stephen Covey
Young people aged between 18 and 37 are twice as likely to be uncomfortable with ambiguity at work than their older colleagues, according to a recent study conducted in Australia.
The research, popular on LinkedIn, asked over 800 employees to respond to a set of statements, including “I get anxious taking on problems that don’t have a definite solution” and “I like order”. Those aged over 37 were shown to be much more comfortable with ambiguity and are better at managing uncertainty, whereas a growing reliance on technology and “overprotective” parenting styles have been blamed for millennials struggling to catch up.
This has given the anti-millennial brigade the evidence they have been waiting for to deny previous claims that young people are both adaptable and innovative.
Does it really?
I agree with the research, but I disagree with how it has been interpreted. If there is one thing that can lead me to feeling stressed, it is not being in control of managing my time time or how I achieve a deadline. This largely stems from lack of information from those who influence my time, thus increasing ambiguity. Yet, I do consider myself adaptable. I’ve comfortably and successfully worked across industries, cultures and company sizes. I lead transformation programmes and support others through change; being adaptable and innovative is part of job.
Ambiguity is about how open to interpretation something is; adaptability, on the other hand, is about modifying and adjusting to new conditions. The difference is the information at hand.
So how do we support those millennials who may not yet be comfortable with ambiguity*? (*”not yet”, because this could just be because we grow more comfortable with age, not due to our parental upbringing, as the research suggests; “those millennials”, as not all millennials are the same).
It’s straightforward really. In 3 steps:
I hear a lot of talk about providing transparency, or being transparent at work, but I don’t see a lot of action. This is because we understand that being more open and honest with employees empowers them, builds trust and provides the information to get the job done better and quicker. Yet leaders are still afraid to broaden the decision-making process.
Increasing transparency decreases ambiguity.
In the same way that we are taught to face our fears in order to overcome them, the best way to become more comfortable with ambiguity is to be more exposed to it. This calls for employers and managers to provide stretching opportunities, autonomy and empowerment in order to experience those real learning-enriched situations.
Providing exposure develops comfort with ambiguity.
We are all influenced by others, consciously or otherwise. If you would like to see a greater ability to manage ambiguity in others, lead by example. Provide influence, rather than impatience. Be an example of how being both adaptable and able to cope with ambiguity can reap rewards.
Leading by example demonstrates how to act when faced with ambiguity.
As we grow older, we learn to accept the way things are (there comes a time when we grow out of that again too). We learn to cope better with ambiguity, because we learn there is no other option. We all learn as we gain years, but we don’t have to rely on the years alone. If you work with millennials, be open, provide opportunities for growth, and lead by example.
If you are a millennial, are there any other steps you would add? If you work with millennials, how will you develop your teams and colleagues with an appreciation of the ambiguity that they may be facing?