Adapting to Ambiguity

It is all well and good to learn the necessary techniques you need to develop your tolerance of ambiguity
but how do you ensure they become your automatic response, a habit?

Any change to behaviour takes daily work and practice, but it does get easier.

Our brains crave certainty; it is a connection and prediction machine; it loves a pattern. 

Ambiguity, meaning unclear, uncertain and difficult to comprehend, rattles our brain – we cannot predict likely outcomes or rely on identifiable patterns to find a way forward. 

Ambiguity and uncertainty are energy-zappers; our limbic system (emotional function) kicks in and is significantly heightened when we cannot make sense of our situation and uncertainty is all around; we go into the freeze-flight-fight response in a matter of milli-seconds and this is good when we are faced with a real threat such as a truck hurtling towards us, but our workplace threats are rarely so dramatic and rarely require the freeze-flight-fight response. The ideal is that we activate our pre-frontal cortex (executive function) of our brain which is responsible for planning, decision-making, problem-solving, self-control, and acting with long-term goals when we are faced with uncertainty and ambiguity. Essentially, often our response to change is emotional (worried, fearful, stressed, anxious) whereas we need our thinking to be clear, considered and logical to find the benefits in change.

So how do we change the way we respond to change, uncertainty and ambiguity?

We train our brain to think differently!

Over recent decades the old saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ has been debunked due to the study of neuroplasticity (noor-oh-pla-stis-i-tee) which is the brains ability to reorganise and change by forming new neural connections between the nervous system and the brain. 

We now know that every single one of us, regardless of age, origin, gender, social and environmental factors has the power to change our mindsets – to let go of the past ways of behaving and thinking and shape a new future. In other words, we can develop new habits. We can think differently.

How do I form new habits?

A habit is an acquired pattern of behaviour which is enacted consistently until almost involuntary. Simply put, it is a behaviour that becomes automatic through repetition. Habit forming involves four components – cue, craving, response, and reward. 

If we consider the Habit Loop from the perspective of building a tolerance of ambiguity, it could look like:

  • the cue is the trigger for the behaviour; for example, you are asked to attend a project meeting where you are required to give status update presentation and you are feeling very uncertain about how it will go, who will be at the meeting and how you will perform
  • the craving is what drives the action; the meeting attendees recognise you as being highly competent and valuable due to your presentation
  • the response is the habit itself; you prepare by getting curious, asking yourself four key questions: what does a successful presentation look like, who will be in attendance and what will they be expecting, what are the three key take-aways I want to leave the audience with and how will I prepare myself so my nerves do not get the better of me
  • the reward is the positive feeling associated with the behaviour; you nailed the presentation and the Project Sponsor recognises you in front of the project team, resulting in a reinforcement of this action (ie getting curious), thus, creating what is known as a habit loop. A craving is key to embedding the habit for the long-term. 

Through neuroplasticity, we are able to rewire our brains. From a mechanical perspective, habits are well-established neurological pathways in the brain. That is, neurons that comprise this pathway easily fire, making the thoughts, feelings, and behavioural outcomes virtually automatic. Such as brushing your teeth each morning, you don’t think about it, you just do it; it is habitual.

When we want to create a new positive habit or reduce or eliminate a bad habit, we have to actually think about doing it, it won’t occur without effort! We need to rewire our brain so new neural pathways can be carved out in our brain eventually creating new automatic habits – but it takes time. The old pathway and way of thinking, feeling, and behaving is used less, and thus becomes less automatic and eventually, redundant. The new pathway is more easily travelled, and therefore resulting in the rewiring of our brain, and a new habit!

Understanding these elements can help in understanding how to change unhelpful habits or form better ones.

Establishing habits correlated to a clearer tolerance of ambiguity will significantly improve your ability to not only survive but thrive (reward) when faced with uncertainty in the workplace. We know that change is hard and it is getting harder, but it can be easier (craving) to navigate; our workplaces are littered with changes (cue) – restructures, digital initiatives, strategic pivots, leadership changes, mergers, demergers and so the list goes on. To ensure you remain relevant as the pace and complexity of change accelerates, you need to adopt the Adapting to Ambiguity habits (response).

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