The Single Greatest Weakness in the Business World

By Dan Haile

March 19, 2018

Ambiguity: (noun) the quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness.

I coach students in a variety of graduate degree programs at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management. Many have spent anywhere from a couple of years to a couple of decades in the workforce, so we use a well-regarded “360” assessment, in which students ask their peers, bosses, and subordinates to rate them on 38 different leadership, managerial, and interpersonal competencies. The assessment has been widely used for years: over 4.5 million people have taken it.

In North America, the lowest scoring of the 38 competencies is—wait for it—Managing Ambiguity. Why?

Business people are successful first and foremost because we get things done. We naturally seek to control as much as we can, because it provides a sense of efficiency, competency, and security. And what we see time and again is when our clients’ projects and commitments are made more complex—more ambiguous—by things beyond their control, they often get emotionally triggered and react negatively. Ironically, the much greater threat to their success becomes their reactions to the ambiguity and loss of control, not the ambiguity itself.

To illustrate, meet our client, “Jake.” Jake was promoted and given responsibility for creating a new customer support call center for his company. As part of this change, the project was to be formally announced by company leadership, accompanied by a request for staff to collaborate with Jake on this new endeavor. Because change at the company historically moved slowly, Jake wasn’t given a hard completion date; it was made clear this was expected to be a lengthy process.

Subsequently, the announcement and formal launch for Jake’s project were delayed several times.  Meanwhile, Jake was encouraged to continue engaging his colleagues to work with him planning the project. Jake did what he could, but without the formal company-wide launch, building consensus for the change was not easy. Leadership did not criticize Jake for the relative lack of progress; on the contrary, they knew they hadn’t yet done their part to get the ball rolling and they repeatedly assured him not to worry.

Nonetheless, Jake was frustrated, spending precious political capital pressuring his higher-ups for the formal launch and doing more damage to his perceived competency than the project’s sluggishness. Jake’s get-it-done attitude, which worked beautifully when he was solo—it had gotten him the promotion after all—now belied his lack of emotional intelligence for dealing with ambiguity. Lashing out at the people above him, he did serious damage to his superiors’ previously positive regard.

Growing self-awareness is the first step in coaching. For those in similar situations to Jake, as long as the boss knows the status of things—even if he or shee seems ambivalent—it’s best to keep working steadily and not to worry. Don’t worry about the growing complexity or lack of clarity, about the increasing inefficiency, or about your seeming loss of control. How you do what you do is equally important as what you do. Manage your emotions and reactions to ambiguity and loss of control, and you’ll usually be just fine.

Sometimes, the most valuable thing in our toolbox is a simple prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change,
courage to change what I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.


Need help managing ambiguity in your organization or dealing with ambiguity yourself?  Reach out to one of our executive coaches in the Owen Coaching Network.  Click here to learn more.

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