Note: This column is part of a series on the six primary characteristics of white male culture. We will work to examine how these traits show up in the world and tie them to events and behaviors that are in plain view of everyone who follows current events in the US and around the world.
“You’ve got to learn to be sure of yourself.”
“Don’t guess what the answer is — figure it out.”
“What do you mean ‘I don’t know’? It’s your job to know!”
Many of us have heard messages like these from parents, teachers, mentors and even bosses. At best, these sorts of statements are meant to motivate us to be confidant, to find the answer, to figure things out. At worst, they are misapplied motivational techniques that could invoke shame instead of spur confidence and action. Either way, these prompts, and other messages like them, instill in us a low tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.
Like all of the traits that collectively describe US White Male culture (a.k.a. US Business Culture), this trait comes with many benefits. We reassure prospective customers with guarantees of reliability and consistency when buying products, we speak with surety and confidence and, most of all, we solve problems.
Some of us learned the scientific method of problem solving in school, and with it we learned to identify root causes of problems and the importance of “nipping the problem in the bud” to make it go away forever. But what if the problem doesn’t have a root cause, or it has multiple?
Low tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity sounds great, but it doesn’t always pencil out as a great leadership trait. In most organizations, few leadership decisions have “yes/no” solutions. Research shows the higher up a leader is, the more uncertainty and ambiguity they have to navigate. They are faced with more “both/and” problems that result in both positive and negative impacts, regardless of the actual decision. Leaders who are rigidly attached to an either/or approach struggle to get comfortable with the ambiguity they have to manage.
A classic illustration of either/or vs. and/both thinking is the topic of affirmative action, a set of procedures designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination, remedy the results of prior discriminatory actions and prevent those actions in the future. Specifically, affirmative action is intended to provide equal opportunities for members of minority groups and women in education and employment. Advocates of the practice can point to significant increases in college applications and graduation rates of minority students, improved rates of employment in management roles for women and a host of other positive outcomes that are a direct result of the practice. Critics of affirmative action question its necessity, and argue that we should focus on other policies and programs that encourage equal opportunity, such as setting high expectations for ALL students and improving their college readiness.
The data shows conclusively that affirmative action has worked, but even its strongest advocates generally agree that it is an inelegant, engineered solution to a complex societal issue with deep historical roots. Does affirmative action work? Yes. In some cases, can it disadvantage those who are accustomed to having the advantage? Yes — the results are and/both.
While confidence and a low tolerance for ambiguity are heralded as traits of a good leader, the truth is that employees actually want their leaders to have traits like honesty, competency, fairness, dependability and the ability to look to and think about the future. Leadership experts James Kouzes and Barry Posner have been arguing against the stereotype of leaders as all-knowing, ultra-capable superhumans for two decades. Their research shows that people are inspired not by perfection but by authenticity. Being authentic sometimes means not being certain and saying “I don’t know” when the solution eludes us. Not knowing is the antecedent to always being certain.
Learning to embrace a higher tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty can be a key growth breakthrough for leaders who embody this trait. This means learning the skill of empathy so they can see and feel the perspectives of others. It can also mean learning that some issues are paradoxical, representing two or more opposite perspectives that may be equally valid.
As with the other traits, it can be helpful to look inward and examine how low tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty operates or influences our own mindsets. For example, I am discovering that I view gender as an either/or proposition when in fact many see gender expression as a continuum. For anyone new to the concept, people tend to use gender and sex to describe the same thing. Though connected, the two terms are not equivalent. Experts tell us that a person’s gender involves looking at three dimensions:
- Body: How we experience our own body
- Identity: Our sense of self as masculine, feminine and/or a blend of both
- Expression: How our gender is presented to the world and how people and society see us.
As a cis-gendered man (meaning all three of these dimensions align as masculine for me), I have little or no concern or even awareness of the gender continuum. I was raised to think that we humans are born as either male or female and that “gender” is simply a matter of anatomy. However, not everyone feels or sees themselves the same way that I do. Working with people who self-identify as gender-queer or pansexual has required me to examine my own bias.
My low tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty has helped me learn to act decisively, and sometimes that skill has helped me achieve great results at work and in my personal life. AND, if I am honest, I can think of plenty of times that my bias for either/or thinking has contributed to some pretty big mistakes as well.
As with the other US White Male Culture traits we have explored in this series, the goal is to achieve balance and keep in mind that, while this trait serves us well sometimes, at other times it may interfere with really “seeing” new approaches, solutions and even people.