Simon Critchley, who is the Hans Jonas professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, wrote a blog for The New York Times discussing a 1960s British TV series called “The Ascent of Man.” The series, which consisted of 13 hour-long episodes narrated by Polish-born mathematician Dr. Jacob Bronowski, sought to depict human cultural evolution from our beginnings to Bronowski’s time period.
In an episode entitled “Knowledge or Certainty,” Bronowski visited the city of Göttingen in Germany to document the origins of the physicist Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that at the subatomic level, the act of observing alters the reality being observed. For example, to observe an electron, a scientist has to use light or radiation, but the energy in the radiation affects the electron being observed. Heisenberg said that one could never, with certainty, measure more than one property of a particle. In “Knowledge or Certainty,” Bronowski extended the application of the Uncertainty Principle beyond quantum physics and used it to characterize knowledge in general. “Knowledge is precise,” Critchley described Bronowski as saying, “but that precision is confined within a certain toleration of uncertainty.”
Today’s higher education leaders work in a world in flux. Earning a master’s degree in organizational leadership can get someone into the world of higher education leadership but it’s only the beginning of learning how to become a real leader. A quality called “tolerance for ambiguity,” which was studied in-depth by Dr. Stanley Budner as part of his dissertation for Columbia University, can often predict whether a person would succeed in a modern leadership role.
What Is Tolerance for Ambiguity?
Rob Kaplan, former vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs, once said, “Justice prevails over time in any good organization, but justice does not prevail at any given point in time.” In other words, there are moments of ambiguity in any given day, and higher education leaders have to build their tolerance for momentary injustice. Budner said that when a person has an intolerance for ambiguity, the person perceives ambiguous situations as threatening. A person with tolerance for ambiguity, on the other hand, perceives ambiguous situations as promising.
According to Budner, ambiguity rises from three main sources:
- Novelty. Novelty produces surprise, interest and curiosity, or what Winifred Gallagher called “knowledge emotions.” These knowledge emotions, like thoughts, are what spur people to learn new things. Novelty can also frighten people who fear the unknown. They may see a novel problem and feel unsure of how to proceed.
- Complexity. In complex situations, it becomes impossible to run scenarios for every potential problem. As a result, people have to think on their feet and make decisions in the moment. If a person is afraid to risk making the wrong decision, then paralysis might result.
- Insolubility. Most problems don’t have a single obvious solution, but dismissing them too quickly means passing up the opportunity to make big changes. As John A. Gardner said, “We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”
How People Deal With Ambiguity
Most people approach ambiguous situations using instructionist, learning or selectionist mindsets. Instructionism is a way of avoiding uncertainty by restricting oneself to slow-to-change environments.
Causal mapping, in which people decide that certain actions achieve certain outcomes, prevents the distress that comes with ambiguity. Another approach, learning, allows people to modify assumed rules based on observed changes in their environments. They perceive new elements in their environments, and they re-plan their strategies.
People who respond to ambiguity with selectionism may not constantly monitor their environments, but they are willing to launch multiple projects to see which one produces the greatest benefit. As a result, they are more likely to find a solution within a more complex environment. The best selectionists use learning to stop solutions-in-progress when they observe that certain approaches produce superior outcomes.
How Higher Education Leaders Can Evaluate Their Own Ambiguity Tolerance
Budner’s Tolerance of Ambiguity Scale is an effective tool for determining ambiguity tolerance. It consists of 16 short questions and is easy to complete and understand. In general, higher education administrators who seem to never have sufficient information to make decisions, who demonstrate discomfort with imperfect solutions and who are only willing to tackle small, incremental problems may find jobs in higher education, but they may never truly learn to lead.