On being in-between, and ambiguity

Transitions are always the hardest times. Even when all of the decisions have been made and you’re just waiting for things to play out, it’s emotionally uncomfortable to be betwixt and between. Frequently, though, the situation is more ambiguous – everything’s up in the air, the key decisions haven’t been made, and there isn’t even the comfort of knowing the plan. Maybe the decisions are being made by someone who can’t, or won’t, put a stake in the ground. Or maybe it’s a collaborative situation which just has to work itself out. Sometimes, you just have to wait.

Of course, we’ve all had this experience. As one example, the period between applying to college and learning where (and whether) you’ve been accepted is one of the most stressful shared experiences of high school students. One’s choice of college has a profound impact on almost every aspect of one’s life, from the friendships formed, to the cultural norms, opportunities, classes, teachers, sports, and local scene experienced. Having to wait powerlessly for months during senior year to find out how everything will work out – not to mention the judgment implicit in the process – is an intensely frustrating experience.

But this isn’t just about the big life changes – this happens all the time. One project ends and there’s a short period before what you’re working on next is determined. You switch teams and there’s a period between when you make the move and when you start feeling comfortable with your new teammates, tasks, processes. This is magnified when there’s a reorganization, or you’re moving to a new company. We do best when outside distractions are cleared away, and being in a constant state of being off balance will significantly impact your performance.

As a manager, you have to be sensitive to the increased tension that accompanies transitions and ambiguity, and proactive in heading it off when possible. Sometimes this means making decisions and sharing information earlier than strictly necessary – like letting people know what their next projects will be before the current ones are over. Sometimes it means shielding your team from disruptive information – at a startup, fundraising is simultaneously an existential requirement and a huge distraction. I was at a video game startup many years ago where the blow-by-blow of contract negotiations was shared with the team, and it created an emotional rollercoaster that severely damaged productivity. It’s important to give people input into decisions that will affect their lives, but telling them about things they can’t do anything about will manufacture unnecessary angst. You don’t need to share everything. When your team is going through a period of high uncertainty, it’s important to be sensitive, listen a lot, and understand that there will likely be more rumors and emotions during this time.

The other lesson, though, is that the higher up the management chain you get, the more you need to learn to live with ambiguity. When you’re a team lead, you usually have the luxury of a clear mandate and fairly well-defined tasks. But as you take on more responsibility, you’ll have different people or teams facing different challenges; the goals will become vaguer; and your ability to make things happen will depend more on your ability to convince other people to follow your lead, less on your ability to complete discrete tasks. You’ll have to start things in motion, then see how they end up. You’ll have to figure out strategies for working with difficult people. You’ll get thrown curveballs all the time. Additional responsibility will come with new and potentially difficult relationships to manage.

Taken individually, no one problem might be that difficult, but life isn’t usually that kind. There’s always something to knock you off balance, and you’re going to be in an almost permanent state of in-between. You’ll always be on the sidelines of important projects, organizing where necessary, getting out of the way as much as possible, but with little actual power to influence events. There will always be decisions being made by your boss, or other departments, or business partners, or customers, that you’ll simply have to wait for. New people will start, old people will go, you’ll spend a lot of time recruiting, and for a lot of that time you won’t have any idea whether the work you’re doing will bear fruit.

And so, to some extent, your success as a manager will increasingly be determined by your ability to accept ambiguity, to function effectively within it, and to avoid an emotional response that spills over onto the people around you. It’s easy to let the things you can’t control get under your skin, and to spend a lot of time angsting about them. But since you can’t actually do anything about them, you can either let them frustrate and impair you until they resolve on their own, or learn to get things done despite them. When time is the only way to resolve an issue, being able to accept and deal with the rock in your shoe for a day, week, month, etc., is an absolutely essential skill.

Optimism can be defined as the belief in one’s ability to affect one’s environment. Focusing on all of the aspects of a situation that can’t be changed is both a huge waste of time, and a recipe for depression and frustration. When you’re in transition, it’s helpful to narrow your focus to the things you do have control over. Focusing on what needs to get done, and putting aside “the situation,” can be hard, but is absolutely essential if you’re going to be effective in the midst of a challenging, ambiguous situation.

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