Wednesday, October 05, 2011
Tolerance for Ambiguity
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!