Managing Ambiguity, a competency to harness now and for the future
Managing Ambiguity, a competency to harness now and for the future
Managing Ambiguity, a competency to harness now and for the future
Cécile Doyen Associate Director of School Support & Evaluation


By Cécile Doyen, Associate Director, CIS School Support & Evaluation Services



Our Performance Management Committee at CIS has been exploring a revision of our approach to performance review for staff.

One of our objectives is to ensure that the day-to-day performance of each person’s role and responsibilities is a salient feature of the process.

One aspect of the committee’s work has been to look into the use of the Korn Ferry Leadership Architect Global Competency Framework. A framework of 38 competencies that can guide the growth and development of professionals in any organization.

One of our criteria to assess the usability of this framework in our context is 'relevance'. Are the competencies relevant for today’s workplace? Are they articulated in language/terminology that is accessible to all? Do these competencies offer opportunities for growth at all levels of professional maturity?

In the context of a global problem such as the current outbreak and spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, one particular competency struck me.

“Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don’t.” ―Steve Maraboli


“Manages Ambiguity”

In terms of relevance, I must admit the description of a skilled professional with this competency sounds like the perfect colleague to have amidst this crisis!

Korn Ferry describes a skilled professional who manages ambiguity as being able to:

  • deal comfortably with the uncertainty of change
  • handle risk effectively
  • decide and act without the total picture
  • be calm and productive, even when things are up in the air
  • deal constructively with problems that do not have clear solutions or outcomes

You might recognize yourself or your colleagues in these behaviors, especially right now!

You might also recognise the opportunity for growth. The framework encourages professionals to nurture this competency and extend themselves in this realm.

Professionals who are talented at managing ambiguity will likely:

  • be energized when faced with ambiguity and uncertainty
  • make significant progress and remain calm and composed, even when things are uncertain
  • manage the risks that come with moving forward when the outcome isn’t certain
  • adapt quickly to changing conditions

On the other end, sometimes, we feel less equipped to deal with ambiguity. At those times, we might find ourselves slipping into the following behaviors:

  • struggling to make progress when facing ambiguous or uncertain situations
  • delaying moving forward until all the details are known
  • appearing stressed when things are uncertain
  • operating best when things are structured and predictable

Similarly, the competency framework offers the opportunity to reflect that, at times, we might overuse this competency and, as an Achilles’ heel, it could then present a weakness.

Someone who overuses the skills related to managing ambiguity might display the following behaviors:

  • may move to conclusions or actions without enough data
  • may err toward the new and risky at the expense of proven solutions
  • doesn’t honor others’ need for some level of clarity before acting

Ask yourself:

  • How do I fare in these uncertain times, in terms of managing ambiguity?
  • Is this an opportunity to grow as I plough through the day’s uncertainties?
  • Am I confident in my ability to manage ambiguity personally and professionally? 
  • Might this even be an opportunity to impact others positively by sharing your talent in this area and modeling inspiring behaviors?

The Korn Ferry Global Competency Framework comes with resources to develop in all areas. Here are some of their tips that might resonate for each of us at this time…

Losing your cool? Managing uncertainty-driven stress? It’s not uncommon to get stressed when dealing with increased ambiguity. We lose our anchor. Stress increases the chances that you’ll respond to conditions and people more emotionally. Maybe you lash out. Close down. Berate yourself. Go into panic mode. However you react, remember that your reactions probably don’t just affect you. So take charge of it. Get familiar with what triggers your reactions. Is it when you don’t know what to do, don’t want to make a mistake, are afraid of the consequences, lack the confidence to act? Pause. Observe your pattern and label your emotions—this will provide some perspective and reduce escalation. Do some research, then try different ways to regain your equilibrium until you find what works best for you. There are lots of resources available online, from breathing and mindfulness exercises to tips on tackling underlying issues. When a situation seems overwhelming, drop the problem for a while. Go do something else. Return to it after you’ve had time to decompress and reflect. Practice responding more consistently in ways that will best serve you and your colleagues. —Korn Ferry (2014) FYI® for your improvement: Competencies development guide.


Managing Ambiguity, a competency to harness now and for the future
Managing Ambiguity, a competency to harness now and for the future