Wednesday, October 05, 2011


Tolerance for Ambiguity

“That’s stupid.”

As a professor, I gritted my teeth every time I heard a student say that. It was an attempt to shut down discussion of something that didn’t lend itself to an easy answer. Since then, I’ve seen it applied to all manner of things, from gadgets that don’t behave to other people’s motives.

It’s an expression of frustration at the inability to read a situation. If I’m confronted by something I don’t understand, either I’m at fault for not understanding it, or the thing itself defeats understanding. Calling it stupid is a way of blaming the thing.

The habit survives because sometimes it’s true. Some decisions or actions really are stupid, and are accurately described as such. In the twenty-first century, I think there’s a case to be made that the electoral college is genuinely stupid. Blackberry’s decision to launch a tablet without an email reader was truly stupid. It happens.

But moving too quickly to blame the thing itself can quickly become dysfunctional.

I had to smile when I saw this piece, which notes a correlation between creativity and the tolerance for ambiguity.

In managing people, ambiguity comes with the territory. That’s especially true when the people involved are intelligent, self-directed, and concerned only with a small corner of the organization.

Some people handle that by tuning out the ambiguity. One way to do that is to become a rule-driven martinet, enforcing rules as written because they’re written rules. This is the cop who pulls you over for doing 22 in a 20 zone.

The other way is to ignore the rules and go entirely by gut instinct. This is the preferred solution of every cop movie ever made. Just get the job done and don’t worry about “technicalities.” Except that those technicalities exist for reasons, and ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.

Administration necessarily involves living in that gray zone in which rules are both necessary and imperfect. Progress comes from accepting that and deciding to move forward anyway. The best administrators -- and I don’t place myself in this camp yet, though I’m trying hard to get there -- manage to refocus the ambiguity.

Which sounds better: uncertainty or possibility? Failure or learning experience? Internal politics or growing pains?

It likely won’t be long before there are some new deans on campus. I’ll be involved in the selection process. I would love to be able to spot the folks who can handle ambiguity, and even better, reframe it into a hopeful sense of possibility. Folks who can tell the difference between growing pains and fatal objections, between a failed experiment and a failed experimenter.

It strikes me as a kind of wisdom, though it’s not necessarily related to age. I’ve seen young adults who have it, and older adults who don’t. Experience helps, but I’m convinced that it only helps if you have the right framework with which to process it. An experienced martinet is still just a martinet.

Wise and worldly readers, is there an effective way to screen for the tolerance for ambiguity? Even better, is there a good way to suss out the people who see the kernel of promising future lodged in the teeth of the present? These hires are likely to matter a great deal, and I’d hate to scuttle some promising cultural change by hiring someone who’s too quick to call things stupid.

I can't answer your questions about screening for open-mindedness, but I had the "That's stupid" student for the first time this semester. Her attitude poisoned the entire class discussion until I figured out a solution. Instead of engaging, I just said, "That's interesting," and quickly moved on. The class became more willing to discuss and eventually so did she.
We always try to ask a scenario-based question or two during an interview fornjust this purpose. A common one involves how do you deal with a student who is doing poorly in your class and proposes a creative solution to improving her grade. We ask similar interview questions of administrators, regarding dealing with a seemingly off-the-wall student complaint.

We are always suspect of the individual who invokes the syllabus, student manual or employee policy manual as the total and final arbiter. Likewise, we can also identify the teacher who will let a student do whatever he wants.
We went through a lot of candidates getting our last dean. One of them kept answering every question with - "I would need more data to answer." I'm surprised the guy was able to order lunch ("What dressing would you like on your salad?" "I need more data....")He did not get hired.

To ID someone who has some tolerance for ambiguity, I would ask scenario questions like:
You have to choose between continuing funding for a program of questionable effectiveness or one that is new, partially grant supported and too recently implemented to have outcomes of any signifigance. Which do you fund?
Confronted with a department that historically has hired faculty that have similar backgrounds and interests, what, if anything, would you do to encourage diversity in that group?
Give an example of a time when you had to interpret a rule - how did you decide what to do and what was the outcome?
You have been asked to document the assessment plans for your college for an upcoming accreditation cycle. One of your departments has not engaged in assessment of any kind. When you investigate, you discover that the department has a plan that was never implemented because it was excessively time and resource intensive. How would you resolve this?
When I was just starting out in this business, I worked for a private high school that used an extensive interview as the primary screen for entry. One thing the interviewer did was start to list rules that the school invoked, starting with no illicit drugs. He would ask the student if she could see the sense it that rule, and the student would give an obvious sort of response. He would then follow this by stating that there was a rule against wearing sneakers (not true), and asking if the student could see the justification in that. Students would come up with all sorts of answers dealing with ankle support, dress code, etc. The cleverer ones would ask, "all sneakers? Even black leather ones?" It was so interesting to see the contortions that students went through to satisfy what they thought was the interviewer's interest in making sure that students followed all the rules.

If students justified the Sneaker Rule, the interviewer would then continue down the same road, citing ever more bizarre and unreasonable rules, until finally a student would say, "well, I just don't see the sense in that".

Students who ended up at the 5th or 6th rule were generally judged as too rigid. Students who could not see sense in the illicit drug rule were generally judged to be too flexible.
The tolerance for ambiguity scale: Towards a more refined measure for international management research.
Herman, Jeffrey L.; Stevens, Michael J.; Bird, Allan; Mendenhall, Mark; Oddou, Gary; International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Vol 34(1), Jan, 2010. pp. 58-65. [Journal Article] Abstract: Research on global leadership, expatriate adjustment and performance, and adaptive performance suggests that tolerance for ambiguity is positively related to performance in the global work environment and in cross-cultural settings. A critique of existing measures of the construct of tolerance for ambiguity is presented, followed by a report of the development of a new measure of tolerance for ambiguity—the Tolerance for Ambiguity Scale (TAS). Findings demonstrate improved factor structure and internal consistency for the TAS compared to the measure of tolerance for ambiguity that is most commonly reported in the extant literature. Utility of the scale is discussed in terms of future research directions as well as implementation in practice.
Another vote for the scenario questions. Invoke a tricky but realistic scenario involving differing interests, pesky rules, and some serious politics. IME, you'll quickly suss out which candidates fall back entirely on the rules, which ignore them, and which would try to find a balance and an "opportunity for growth" as a bonus.
I checked the article Will Schweinle mentioned.
It was really interesting to me, because I'd been asked in a study whether I agreed with "An expert who doesn’t come up with a definite answer probably doesn’t know too much." I didn't realize it was testing tolerance for ambiguity, precisely (nor had I any idea this question has been around since 1962).
I'm actually really glad to have a name for "tolerance of ambiguity". It helps me understand why I always feel uncomfortable when people say things like "the older I get, the more I realize some people just aren't worth it". There's a truth to that, and I admire the good judgement these people seem to have of other people and/or the maturity they have to know their own limits... if that is what the underlies the comment. However, I think it can also be intolerance for ambiguity underlying the comment...the sort of people who agree with " I avoid settings where people don’t share my values".
I have a deep-seated fear of becoming the sort of person who says that.
I wasn't convinced by the article. Tolerance for ambiguity is the reason our school got in trouble with accreditors for not assessing outcomes.

Attention to detail is important. I'm the type of person that will spend a half hour in the store weighing all the options to buy my kid the "right" toy. Yes it takes more time. But because I insist on getting all the details just right, I know a lot more about random stuff than most of my friends. It's also the reason I insisted on evaluating recent changes in our developmental math program using rigorous measures. "It seems like it's working" just doesn't hack it.
Does your interview process involve an impromptu writing sample? If so, you could provide the candidate with a prompt that is either (a) ambiguous in its own right, to see how the candidate chooses to interpret and respond to it or (b) describe a situation that is fraught with ambiguities and ask the candidate to offer a list of possible interpretations (perhaps ranked by the candidate's assessment of likelihood). Route (a), of course, is the riskier option and would require subtle judgment in creating the prompt.
Re: the ambiguity question.

I was once asked to tell how I would handle a situation which had several standard options (which I should have known). But because I was an experienced teacher, I had set up my classroom so that the situation would have never happened. When I was presented with the situation, I wanted to answer with the expected/literature answer, but I knew that wasn't best and I knew the situation wouldn't happen in my classroom.

I had enough self confidence to tell the interviewer that such a situation would probably not happen in my classroom because I did a,b,and c which precluded such a situation happening.

I got the position because I had a proactive answer.

If I had been inexperienced, I would have answered the question based on what was standard practice, not realizing that I wasn't being tested on accepted routine.

My point is that an ambiguous question might cause a relatively inexperienced candidate to answer in a rote way rather than thinking out loud and finding a longer answer.

So I suggest ask the situation question, then after the candidate answers, ask the candidate if s/he can think of another way to handle the situation and ask her/him to talk his thinking through out loud. Let her/him have paper and pencil to write notes.

In other words, work with the candidate to find another way to solve the situation. Then you can see the ambiguity tolerance.

Course if you do this, you need to make sure that your interviewer or interviewing committee is also ambiguity tolerant or they may not be able to follow the candidate's reasoning.
Not so much a suggestion as an observation. Dean Dad, you have an impressive ability to anonymize situations at your college and at previous places you have worked. Put that to work here.

I'd recommend that you take a few real situations at your college, ones familiar to those on the committee, and disguise them. Present one as a current or hypothetical problem (your choice), perhaps complete with made-up data on some relevant factor like classroom success rates. Take the real data and tweak them with a random number generator in Excel and you would have pages of real looking data like you deal with every day. Ditto for a student situation; you could make up complain letters and e-mail, the whole paper trail.

Just don't use one you have blogged about!
I've found that "ambiguity" usually just means "unwritten rules", which I'm absolutely terrible at figuring out. When "coping with ambiguity" means "guessing what the boss wants done" then I want nice clear rules/guidelines, because I'm not a mindreader.
Tks very much for your post.

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