Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. Read the previous post here.
Few of us are caught by surprise these days when change occurs in our organizations. However, the rapidly escalating pace of change can sometimes leave us breathless. What’s worse, many organizations are now engaging in large-scale, transformational change, heading in a defined direction but not necessarily knowing where they will end up. They adjust their change path as the journey evolves. Thus people inside of the organization face great uncertainty as the process unfolds.
In her May blog, Katrin Muff described the Business School of Lausanne’s transformational journey. She portrayed the change process as both personal and organizational. According to Katrin, some of the challenges along the way have been inconvenient and discomforting. She concluded, however, that the results of the changes are nevertheless continuing to be very rewarding.
I believe the school deserves great credit for pushing through the inconvenience and discomfort, and persevering in spite of it. Many organizations might not be courageous enough to persist in the face of so much uneasiness; and if so, they would miss out on benefits that could otherwise have been theirs. To excel at transformational change, organizations and the people who comprise them must accept change-related discomfort and adjust to it as a natural expectation.
While large-scale change is likely to be somewhat discomfiting, each of us can diminish the stress it brings by developing greater tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.
Why Change is Difficult
Organizations and human beings have a natural tendency to preserve stability. Stable and long-standing processes, procedures and cultures at their best can enable our organizations to function smoothly and consistently. When our environment is stable, ordinary routines ease our stress levels. Life is more predictable when we can experience a sense of control over our outcomes.
Large-scale change, whether we welcome it or dread it, is disruptive. Since change is often fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty, our routines may no longer serve us well. As a result, we may begin to lose our sense of equilibrium. When we feel off-balance, we are likely to experience anxiety – some of us more than others. While anxiety is truly part of life, left unattended, anxiety can threaten our functionality and our sense of well-being. While we may not be able to eliminate it completely, we can learn to manage it. As we develop greater tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, we are less likely to experience high levels of stress. And when we do, we are more likely to handle the tension more positively.
Tolerance for Ambiguity: The Key to Handling Change
While actions such as exercising, meditating and deep breathing are effective antidotes for the symptoms of stress and anxiety, developing a higher tolerance for ambiguity gets to the root cause of these tensions. Research studies show that people with high tolerance for ambiguity tend to experience less stress, think more clearly, and have a greater sense of well-being than those who are less tolerant.
Characteristics of Those with High Tolerance for Ambiguity
People who have a high tolerance for ambiguity accept the premise that life is often uncertain. They acknowledge that change is complicated and unsettling. They reject the notion that it is either negative or positive. Rather, they tend to believe that every change incorporates some of both. To the best of their ability, they view change as more challenging than threatening.
In addition to using a different frame for viewing change, those with high tolerance for ambiguity are also more likely to possess the following characteristics:
- They focus on the more probable impacts and outcomes of the change rather than on any and all possibilities.
- They don’t dwell on “worst case” scenarios and possible catastrophic outcomes that are highly unlikely.
- They differentiate what they can control from what they cannot.
- They base their actions on the controllable factors and avoid worrying about the others.
- They are willing to take reasonable actions with incomplete information. Therefore, they rarely feel paralyzed in the face of change.
By acting on what they can control, they raise their sense of personal power over their fates. This feeling tends to lead to a higher level of well-being. In truth, these characteristics are more natural to some than to others. Nevertheless, all of us can develop them to some degree. When we do learn to tolerate ambiguity better, we are more likely to handle change well and are less likely to experience constant anxiety and stress.
Summary and Conclusions
Change is upsetting because it disrupts our sense of stability. Unfortunately, many of us still experience change as threatening. We can, however, reframe our thoughts to view change as challenging rather than something to fear. By reframing our views of change, hopefully we can also decrease our negative emotional reactions to it.
When we feel threatened we may resist changing, dig in and hold onto the familiar. Often such reactions only increase the dysfunction and anxiety. However, if we accept ambiguity as a fact of life and consciously raise our threshold for it, we are less likely to be anxious and more likely to make thoughtful decisions. While none of us controls our fate completely, by taking action on those things that we can control we develop a greater sense of self-efficacy which, in turn leads to a greater sense of well-being.
Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants, a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.