Understanding and Working With Your Tolerance for Ambiguity

We are living through uncertain times, and while the world has never been a predictable place, it seems that with COVID-19, so much is out of our hands, and beyond our ability to foresee. In many ways, 2020 has played out like a concentrated case of chaos, or an observation on our fear of the unknown. On top of everything, we are coming together to condemn racial injustice and calling for long overdue sweeping change, and that is playing out in equally unpredictable ways, creating even more uncertainty for many.

While we all crave some level of certainty or comfort, we actually have a unique level of tolerance for ambiguity (TA) with a general set point that can be shifted. 60 years of research has shown that this set point is strongly related to our personalities with each of us starting out at a set level. However, as with any set point, it can be shifted. 

You may not always have control over what happens to you, but you do have autonomy over your mindset and your reactions. To understand your TA set point, and how you can affect it with time and practice, it’s helpful to first understand Martin Seligman’s concept of happiness set points. 

Review of Happiness Set Point 

Seligman, the “father of positive psychology,” started doing research into happiness in 2001, based on the observation that some people naturally have a higher baseline for it than others. He determined that our natural set point –– a state we tend to return to after the effects of external variables fade –– is enduring. That means that even after you win the lottery or fall in love, you will eventually return to your normal happiness set point. The opposite is also true –– if you stub your toe or lose your job, you will still eventually settle back into your natural range. 

With this in mind, he also determined that you can change your default –– through key practices and rituals. Personally, I have a lower happiness set point, but I can gradually increase that range through ongoing implementation and layering of certain strategies. For instance, I increase my level of enduring happiness by eating healthy foods, exercising every day –– quarantine got me back to daily exercise for the first time in years! –– practicing daily gratitude in a journal, volunteering, and putting physical reminders of happiness on my desk (quotes and signs).

Ambiguity Set Point

Whether it’s socially determined, or there’s a biological component, there is evidence that shows tolerance of ambiguity (TA) can also be measured on what amounts to a one-dimensional scale. 

Individuals on one end of the spectrum (Lower TA) prefer clarity, information, and structure. This foundation drives quick, confident judgments and simple, black-and-white solutions. Ambiguity is generally perceived as a threat and a source of discomfort or risk, and reactions to uncertainty on this end of the scale include avoidance, delay, or digging in to create clarity. 

On the other end of the scale, you’ll find people who view ambiguous situations as desirable, challenging, or interesting. Usually, these are individuals who score highly on an Openness to Experience scale. They view the lack of clarity as an open space to explore, create, and do things differently. They will be more comfortable with risk-taking behavior, and they may resist the creation of structure or the elimination of options early on. 

In comparison to my setpoint for happiness, my TA is higher. In the past, I’ve actually found myself going out of my way to create ambiguity if it doesn’t already exist. Although, over the years, I’ve gotten better at not wreaking havoc in my own life when things become too predictable. I’ve been able to make this shift after becoming aware of my natural setpoint, knowing that with practice, I can shift it.

Generally, you want to be aware of where you are on the scale and what that means for how you interact; it may be different in different situations! Do you try to create structure wherever you go (even where it might not be needed)? Then you may be lower on this dimension. Do you always try to do things for the specific circumstance that you face in that moment (i.e., everything is customized)? Then you may be creating more complexity that you need to. The key is to understand how your set point is showing up, determine if you want to move it, and take action.

My TA set point meant that I was good at coming up with new ideas for things I wanted to do, but had little follow through, especially if it was something I was doing for myself; or, I would fail to create enough clarity for those around me, causing them to get frustrated. One strategy I used to shift my TA was building the habit of asking myself, “What great solutions already exist?” and “Just because we can do it differently, is there real value to do so?” With colleagues, I looked for opportunities to let others lead. 

I also focus on how I can create clarity around the process, so that figuring out solutions can emerge along the way, which feeds my need to leave things open. When it came down to it, for me, it was all about slowing down, considering my impact on others, and looking for ways to meet the needs of those around me.

Be Intentional About Your Place on the Scale: Strategies and Practices

Like anything where we have a starting or set point, we can end up in a bit of a rut when we always default to the “preset” instead of being intentional about what each situation and circumstance calls for. Just like I was able to be intentional in shifting my set points (up for happiness and slightly down for ambiguity), you can do the same for TA. 

If you’re someone who wants to increase their tolerance for ambiguity, start small. My first piece of guidance would be to start by asking questions. Which part of your life or career do you think you need to get better at being able to sit with ambiguity and uncertainty? Then, think about how you can slow things down and create space for curiosity and reflection. The next time something ambiguous enters your space, don’t respond immediately; try to coexist with it and your curiosity. Practice entering each meeting with a mantra around seeing multiple perspectives. Challenge yourself to find all perspectives, surface them, and consider them. Then, reflect on what happens to your thinking and engagement. 

Another tactic is to challenge yourself to do one thing a day that makes you uncomfortable, and practice thinking in the grey space. Resist falling into what are often false dichotomies of “right” and “wrong,” when actually, both things can be true at once. Lastly, you can seek to learn a bit more about yourself. Predictive Index offers a Behavioral Assessment that can help you understand your personality and how it impacts the way you work. An assessment like this can be a useful tool to start considering your natural tendencies.

Be Intentional

When faced with chronic uncertainty, don’t let yourself default to whatever your preset range is if it doesn’t benefit you. Take back control! First, determine where you naturally fall on the scale –– because knowledge is always power –– and then be intentional to shift your tolerance in the direction that suits your needs. Remember, change won’t happen overnight, but with time and effort, it’s possible.