Ambiguity, anxiety and changing-the role of the consultant

Organizational changing involves periods of ambiguity, during which it may not be clear what needs to be done and/or how to implement the changing.

When consultants are brought in, they often bring along process, trust-enhancement between divergent functions, and tools for bottom up involvement. Sometimes they work tailor made, and too often they use pre-packaged crappy tools with apparent effectiveness only.

In my consulting experience, I have found that I have created the most value for my clients by focusing on their basic assumptions about the ambiguity and the anxiety encountered in the changing process.

Here are several issues that my clients and I discuss. Introspecting working through these issues, they have reported a feeling of more competence in dealing with changing.

  • Which parameters are ambiguous? Which are not? Do we need a reality check?
  • What threat does the ambiguity create for me as a leader? What is my knee jerk reaction to ambiguity and anxiety? How effective has this been?
  • How does my anxiety about the ambiguity impact my assumptions about what is expected from me as well as what I expect from others?
  • How much tolerance for ambiguity is needed? How much is expected from me? How do I bridge the gap?

Here are five examples of how leaders have benefited from these discussions.

  • Ed’s level of anxiety is very low. And he has a huge tolerance for prolonged ambiguity. Often his troops believe he is lost, albeit that this is not the case at all.
  • Smadar is very practical and fast moving. She has little tolerance for “too much definition”. At first, she saw her style as very adaptive to changing but ex post facto, lots of change she has led have failed.
  • Vlad assumed that ambiguity needs to be as short as possible and anxiety can be mitigated by appearing to be strong. He has often been pushed aside by senior management during complex changes.
  • Ngai Lam’s belief is that a leader needs to protect her team from the unknown. She is very much respected by local employees but her remote staff believes she lacks the credibility to manage change.

OD’s major value is not extricating leadership from the unknown. The bang for the buck from OD is exploring with clients the parameters of the unknown and its implication on anxiety and leadership.

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