Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What is the difference between uncertainty and ambiguity?

I am often asked this question, so in the interests clarity about ambiguity and uncertainty...

Something is ambiguous if it can be interpreted or seen in more than one way. So for example a sentence in a job reference "you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you" has a couple of different interpretations. Either the subject of this reference is very good or very lazy.

Uncertainty on the other hand is any situation in which an individual has or finds doubt. So a situation could be uncertain but not ambiguous. People can have doubt about the most certain of situations and no doubt about an ambiguous situation. Uncertainty is then also a perception and an individual experience.


Tuesday, August 02, 2011

On failing, learning and ambiguity

Different people I come across or coach have very different relationships with the concepts of failing, learning and ambiguity. It appears there is a relationship between a person's ability to deal with all three. 

On failing: 

  1. The range appears to be from people who in certain situations beat themselves up because they failed or something they were attempting failed. They have a negative emotional reaction to the failure which usually gets them down, for a period at least. This  is the 'failure is a disaster / problem' attitude.
  2. At the other end of the spectrum is the 'failure is important feedback' attitude which we tend to find in successful entrepreneurs for example. This is often a sign of high levels of emotional resilience as long as it is real and not just "I'm saying because thats what I've been told is the value here" rhetoric, found in many organisations. You can tell the difference by the individuals longer term emotional reaction to failure. This end is encapsulated by the Thomas Edison quote “I didn’t fail. I just found ten thousand ways that didn’t work.”.
  3. The position in the middle of the range is the 'sh*t happens' attitude. Whilst this attitude often enables someone to move on, the learning is often minimal.

An individuals reactions are often situational, so a fail in one context or situation can be treated differently to a failure in a different situation (what's known as 'low emotional inertia' - more on this in a later blog), however we do notice trends. So a person who employs a genuine 'failure is feedback' mindset is much more likely to do so in a wider range of situations.

On dealing with ambiguity:

There are is a similar range of reactions to ambiguity and uncertainty (they are not the same thing). Again these can be situational, however people who tend to deal well with ambiguity in one situation will often use similar strategies in other situations, but not always.

  1. At one end of the range we have people who don't even recognise ambiguities and uncertainties and when they do, spend a lot of time trying to make them go away or pretending and hoping they will go away. If the situation can not be escaped from these individuals will become highly stressed and will often have very negative reactions to the situation.
  2. In the middle are a set of reactions which can be summed up by shrugged shoulders and the attitude "well it may be ambiguous but hey what can you do about it?"
  3. At the other end of the spectrum are the individuals who expect ambiguity and uncertainly. Their belief is everything, and I mean everything is uncertain. They tend not to get stressed by ambiguity, in fact prefer to work in ambiguous situations and jobs. It makes them happy. Why because its a licence to experiment, play and learn.
On learning:
Similarly when we look at the range of the ability of people to learn, change their thinking and behaviour (called characterisation - a stable change) from situations we find:
  1. Psychological inertia - where people keep going with the same beliefs, values and behaviour even though the situation strongly suggests that doing something differently would be advantageous. Usually at this end of the spectrum there is a considerable amount of change blindness, where an individual believes things are just the same as before, they don't notice to cues that change has or is occurring.
  2. The middle ground where the change is noticed but this results in little or no change in thinking, beliefs or behaviour. Often referred to as stupidity.
  3. At the other end of the spectrum is a group of individuals who can learn readily, change rapidly in the face of change and adapt their beliefs to the situation, searching out what the reality of the situation is rather than imposing their reality on the situation. This is psychological agility. 
An attitude of the 'excitement of discovery' (the emotion is important) coupled with the intellectual capability to be able to abstract or discern patterns or logical conflicts is the key to learning, dealing with failure, ambiguity and psychological and emotional agility. 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Ambiguity Advantage - Audio from Cranfield School of Management

Cranfield have published an audio about The Ambiguity Advantage: What great leaders are great at and leaders dealing with ambiguity. Listen to it here, or download it.
They mix modes and types / styles of leadership. They are not the same. See an earlier blog about modes here.

Friday, January 28, 2011

There is feeback and then there is FEEDBACK

So leading on from the previous blog. What I was really interested in was the quality of the feedback given to an individual through the four conditions mentioned in my last blog.
Just to remind you of the four conditions of the test:

1. An online automated product which gets respondents to to fill in a series of 40 questions about the individual and included free text feedback items as well. The individual then gets an aggregated document with the feedback split into sections. They do not know who submitted what feedback.

2. The pen and paper system was operated in two different conditions:

a. The first where the forms were sent direct from the respondent to the individual getting the feedback.

b. In the second condition the forms were sent to a third party (the individuals coach) who then aggregated and anonamised the feedback.

3. The respondents were interviewed face-to-face or over the phone by the individuals coach who then aggregated the feedback and gave it to the individual.

I then had the individual receiving and the respondents giving the feedback all rate (5 point scalar) the feedback in terms of:
  1. Usefulness
  2. Accuracy
  3. Honesty
In reverse order the results are (drum role)...

2a where the forms were sent direct to the individual
  • The Receiver of the feedback: Usefulness average 2.1, Accuracy 2.0, Honesty 4.2
  • The Respondents: Usefulness 2.9, Accuracy, 2.9, Honesty 1.8

1. Online automated system

  • The Receiver of the feedback: Usefulness average 3.1, Accuracy 2.9, Honesty 3.7
  • The Respondents: Usefulness 2.8, Accuracy 3.3, Honesty 1.5

2b Where the forms went to the coach
  • The Receiver of the feedback: Usefulness average 3.2, Accuracy 3.5, Honesty 4.0
  • The Respondents: Usefulness 4.2, Accuracy 4.1, Honesty 4.1
3. Fact to Face interview with the coach

  • The Receiver of the feedback: Usefulness average 4.6, Accuracy 4.7, Honesty 4.6
  • The Respondents: Usefulness 4.2, Accuracy 5.0, Honesty 4.9
I have all the tabulated data (sample size, conditions, frequencies, ranges, levels of significance etc) which I will post later.

So just looking at these figures there appears to be a clear difference between the way the feedback is
  1. Collected
  2. Given
  3. Fed back to the individual
  4. Received
In my next post I will discuss these results in greater detail. I'm off for a few days trying to get the next book in some semblance of order. Until then...

Monday, January 24, 2011

Split test of 360 degree feedback. Not all feedback is equal.

I had the opportunity to test three versions of 360 degree feedback, using four different conditions in the last couple of weeks with some interesting results. The three versions were:
1. An automated online system
2. A pen and paper system, and
3. Interviews with respondents

1. The automated product gets respondents to to fill in a series of 40 questions about the individual to get the feedback and includes free text feedback items as well. The individual then gets an aggregated document with the feedback split into sections. They do not know who submitted what feedback.

2. The pen and paper system was operated in two different conditions.
a. The first where the forms were sent direct to the individual getting the feedback.
b. In the second condition the forms were sent to a third party (the individuals coach).

3. The respondents were interviewed face-to-face or over the phone by the individuals coach.

The respondents were told in all conditions that the feedback was in confidence and that the individual getting the feedback would not know who gave any particular feedback.

The respondents were then interviewed after they had completed the feedback and asked how honest they had been, if they had mediated their feedback in any way and what considerations they made whilst answering the questions.
We then interviewed the individuals to get their view of the feedback they received.

Results tomorrow...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Problem Solving and Mood

A couple of clients last week poked me and said. You must be busy because we haven't seen much from your blog recently. I have been working on a number of projects including the next book and a new academic post, however I will get back to this - now.

There have been a couple of interesting and interconnected pieces of research published recently about problem solving and emotion. Readers of The Ambiguity Advantage and clients I coach will know that one premise I work from is that every decision we make is emotionally based. There are a number of prices of research (especially current work using MRi and fMRi) that shows emotional parts of the brain kick in before the decision and the rational-logical areas get to work after the decision is formed. In other words we appear to make decisions based on emotion and then engage in post-decision rationalisation.

A paper actually published in 2009(1) has just hit the headlines (NY Times) in which it was found that positive mood and in particular enjoying comedy just before having to solve a problem increased insight problem solving ( just getting the answer as opposed to methodically working through the problem). Not reported but in the original paper was that the researchers found that anxiety depressed insight problem solving, so that individuals were significantly less likely to be able to just intuitively get the answer.

There are quite a number of research papers showing similar findings, however what Is different here is that the researchers used fMRi to see the process happening.

The second article (2) (awaiting publication), looks at using emotion regulation (the stuff I teach about emotional resilience) strategies when making risk decisions. They discovered that the use of such strategies not only helped the participants to make better decisions but they were also better able to workout which decisions were the riskier choices more accurately and mediate their response in the light of this. This meant that they were able to avoid the decisions that could have more negative effects when engaging in emotional regulation activity then when not, especially under stress.

So what does all this mean? Firstly we are less likely to be able to solve problems with insight problem solving when anxious. Secondly when under stress we are not that good at discerning the levels of risk of a problem or ambiguous situation and are therefore likely to make a more risky decision without knowing we are doing so.

The ability to regulate our emotions is important in both cases. To 'up-regulate' for insight and regulate and therefore mediate the effects of anxiety and stress in any situation that contains ambiguity (I would argue all situations contain ambiguity) so we can better perceive the risks involved and reduce the negative effects that risk and anxiety have on our decision making capability.

1. Subramaniam K, Kounios J, Parrish TB, & Jung-Beeman, M. (2009) A brain mechanism for facilitation of insight by positive affect. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 2009 Mar;21(3):415- 432

2. Martin, L.N. & Delgado, M.R. (2011) The influence of Emotion Regulation on Decision Making Under Risk. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Yet to be published - 2011 poss May/June.