Dealing with ambiguity

Karen Middleton says that the skill of being able to deal with ambiguity is critical to success 

Dealing with ambiguity CSP CEO Karen Middleton

We’re always dealing with ambiguity, when making decisions about our career, our patients, our health or our children. 

Ambiguity means having several interpretations of something, and risk and uncertainty as a result. In recent months, that ‘something’ is guidance: from the government, the CSP, the HCPC, the Health and Safety Executive or scientists. The latter has probably been the most disconcerting: the realisation that as the science rapidly shifts, the guidance changes. It’s why coming out of lockdown is much harder than going in. 

I’ve observed that the heightened anxiety around this pandemic can lead to a mental paralysis. I’ve seen it in myself when I’ve had to make decisions about the CSP and I get stuck in the search for that nugget of information that will make the next  
move completely clear. And of course it doesn’t exist. I have to make the decision with incomplete information. 

Managing ambiguity is easier when you are in good mental and physical health, which may be less likely when we feel exhausted. The ambiguity we faced most days pre-Covid was barely noticeable because we were better able to handle it. 

My advice is first, acceptance. This is a new virus and the guidance will be incomplete. It won’t help every single decision you face, and it will change. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can make a decision. 

Next, take a step back and ignore the clutter in your brain that’s stopping you thinking clearly. Fill in the gaps in your knowledge where you can. Seek out guidance that is available (our website, the HCPC’s, the government and others) and try making decisions based on the facts you do have. 

At some point you will need to make a judgement – and remember we make lots of judgements – every day. You need the courage to follow your judgement. If it doesn’t play out well, at least you know you found out all you could and based your judgement on that – and within your scope of practice. 

Next you need to mitigate the risks – again something we all do every day.  

Then communicate your decision – to your staff, your patients or stakeholders – and how and why you have made it. 

Those who learn to manage ambiguity will adapt quickly, so it is an important skill to develop. The pace of change is faster than ever right now, so adaptation is key to survival and success. 

I think our profession has responded so well to this crisis because we are used to using our clinical judgement in the face of ambiguity, we are good problem-solvers and so we adapt quickly. 

In many of the conversations I’ve had with members, I’ve reminded them to trust their judgement.  

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