Decision-making in the face of ambiguity

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14 April 2022
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

Spaceship takes off into the night sky on a mission“Almost everything worthwhile carries with it some sort of risk, whether it’s starting a new business, whether it’s leaving home, whether it’s getting married, or whether it’s flying into space.” – Chris Hadfield.

As the former commander of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield would certainly have been trained to stay calm in the face of uncertainty to make crucial decisions when they mattered most. For those of us with our feet firmly on Earth, our own ambiguous situations may be less dramatic, but are no less important to our lives.

In both our professional and personal lives, it’s hard dealing with the unknown and being unable to predict what’s going to happen. There’s a feeling of safety and security to routine and having the answers. It’s hard stepping out of this comfort zone and opening ourselves up to the potential for unintended consequences and disappointing results.

Unfortunately, there are very often times when we do need to act without all the information – from making business plans in the midst of fast changing global events, or wanting to speak up in a meeting where you don’t know how others will react. In these cases, it’s often worse to freeze and do nothing at all.

Keeping a cool and clear head in moments of ambiguity is an important skill to learn. We’re here with advice to overcome uncertainty and learn to trust yourself.


1. Recognise what you’re really afraid of

The first step to managing ambiguity is to understand where your nerves are coming from. Every scenario is different, so you might be worried about making plans without knowing all the stakeholder’s opinions, or you might have two seemingly equal options and you feel that you don’t have enough information to make a judgement call between them. Whatever the situation, it really boils down to a fear of the unknown.

If we could somehow know the results of every potential decision before acting, we’d have no reason to worry. We’d simply check what would happen and either act with confidence or find a better path to take. Real life doesn’t work like this. We need to learn to be brave and act without knowing the future. Once we accept these fears, we can start finding practical methods for overcoming them.


2. Start believing in yourself 

How we feel about ourselves, and our beliefs regarding the actions we’re taking directly affect their outcomes. We’ve discussed the Belief Cycle in a previous article, so we’ll only go through it briefly now. For a more in-depth discussion, read our blog on learning from your mistakes.

There are five points to the Belief Cycle. Simply put: our Beliefs (whether we expect to succeed or fail) affect our thoughts; those Thoughts create feelings; those Feelings (excited to act, nervous to speak up, confident in ourselves etc.) alter how we act and behave; our Behaviour directly affects the outcomes; and in turn, those Outcomes affect our beliefs for the next time – and the whole cycle restarts.

This means that if we start with more faith in ourselves from the beginning, we’ll feel more confident and prepared, which increases our chances of success.


3. Reframe your feelings

Of course, feeling more confident is much easier said than done – especially in moments of ambiguity. Approaching things with a ‘can-do’ positive attitude won’t suddenly give you all the answers, but positivity can remove the hesitancy that stems from nerves and uncertainty.

Additionally, identifying where that uncertainty comes from means you can remove some of the air of mystery around it. There’s a very real difference between saying “I don’t know enough to make a plan” and saying, “I don’t know all the financial repercussions of these two different options” or “I don’t know whether everyone else will agree with me, and I don’t want to look stupid.”

These second two statements start giving you power back. You’re no longer worried about the abstract concept of failure, instead you’ve pinpointed the actual issues and can actively overcome them.


4. Find any information you can

Once you’ve uncovered what you’re really concerned about, you’ve got power to act and change the situation. If you’re worried about people’s reaction to a suggestion you want to put forward, then ask one or two other people to gauge their response. If you feel unqualified to do something, research the topic or ask someone who can provide more insight. The more you can find out, the more confident you’ll feel about your decision-making.

For situations where it’s impossible to find all the answers – whether that’s due to time or the nature of the issue – there are still ways to make yourself feel more informed. Consider similar situations to this from the past, what went well and what could have gone better? If you want to change one of your processes but don’t know how clients will react, think about the responses you got to other changes.

If there’s genuinely no precedent, think about what information you do have. You might not know how stakeholders will respond, or the financial impact, but can you make any educated guesses? What related patterns have you seen in the past? Who’s the expert to give you more insight? By focussing on the areas you can predict or that will be safely unaffected can create a sense of safety and security.


5. Make a choice

In life and business, we tend to spend the majority of our time on autopilot, with ambiguity tending to disappear into the background or providing just a vague sense of anxiety. It’s only really in rarer moments of genuine decision-making when ambiguity becomes a real issue. However, when those moments do arise, hesitancy is never the right option.

After going through the process of identifying what you do and don’t know, what you’d like to find out, and – if there’s time – doing more research, it all comes down to courage. Whether you have days to think it over or mere seconds, you need to do the calculations: What are the best possible outcomes? What are the worst possible outcomes? Is the risk worth the potential reward?

Sometimes, there’s nothing left to do but make a choice. Do you act or do you not? If you choose not to, is it out of fear or a genuine assessment of the risks? Making the decision not to do something is a perfectly valid choice, as long as it’s a deliberate decision and not one borne out of hesitancy and fear. Other times, the right thing to do is to take a deep breath and just do it. You might surprise yourself with how well it turns out.


The first time will be hard and nerve-wracking. The second time will be a little easier and so will the third and fourth and so on. We began this article by talking about astronauts. They aren’t superheroes who know everything, they’re humans who train hard. They’re taught how to overcome fear and act without all the information. They practise and practise for years before ever stepping onto a rocket. With experience and practice, you can also develop the skills to confidently make decisions without knowing everything.


For more practical methods to improve your Personal Effectiveness, take a look at our Learning Solutions.