Tolerance for Ambiguity as a Gateway to Leadership Opportunity


The necessity for tolerance of ambiguity

Today’s professionals need to succeed in technology-rich environments [1]. Information age organizations are characterized by rapid change and uncertainty [2]. Progressing globalization poses challenges through ambiguities that are caused by ever novel, complex, and changing socio-economical, environmental, technological, and workforce factors [3]. The ability to tolerate ambiguity, therefore, is increasingly vital for successful leaders and employees alike [1].


“The tolerance for ambiguity (or intolerance for ambiguity) construct relates to a person’s disposition or tendency in addressing uncertain situations” [4, p.1]. The concept is also described in organizational behavior as “a coping mechanism for dealing with organizational change” [5].

Tolerance for ambiguity as a performance driver

Tolerance for ambiguity was found to support organizational performance drivers, such as [2]:

  • Mindfulness
  • Receptive for cross-cultural work and collaboration
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Tolerance for failure
  • Taking risks
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Monitoring self
  • Entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial performance, and
  • Managerial performance
  • A firm’s financial and market performance

Importance for (global) leadership

“Dealing with ambiguity is seldom taught, but higher-performing leaders tend to understand that uncertainty can be the gateway to opportunity” (6, p. 30).

Indeed, tolerance (or intolerance) for ambiguity influences one’s behavior and consequently leadership and decision-making style [4]. Studies have found that expatriates high on tolerance for ambiguity adjust and perform better in global work workplaces and cross-cultural environments [3].

Practicing tolerance for ambiguity

Leadership learning and development should adapt to the rapidly evolving business world, for example, by providing innovative learning strategies such as simulations [2]. Potential for improvement and learning progress related to tolerance for ambiguity can be measured with according psychometric assessments and accordingly monitored as a key leadership ability [3].



[1] Arlitsch, K. (2016). Tolerating Ambiguity: Leadership Lessons from Off-Road Motorcycling. Journal Of Library Administration, 56(1), 74-82. doi:10.1080/01930826.2015.1113063

[2] Brendel, W. )., Hankerson, S. )., Byun, S. )., & Cunningham, B. ). (2016). Cultivating leadership Dharma: Measuring the impact of regular mindfulness practice on creativity, resilience, tolerance for ambiguity, anxiety and stress. Journal Of Management Development, 35(8), 1056-1078. doi:10.1108/JMD-09-2015-0127

[3] Herman, J. L., Stevens, M. J., Bird, A., Mendenhall, M., & Oddou, G. (2010). The tolerance for ambiguity scale: Towards a more refined measure for international management research. International Journal Of Intercultural Relations, 34(1), 58-65. doi:10.1016/j.ijintrel.2009.09.004

[4] Kajs, L. T., & McCollum, D. L. (2009). Examining tolerance for ambiguity in the domain of educational leadership. Academy Of Educational Leadership Journal, 13(2), 1-16.

[5] Judge, T.A., Thoresen, C.J., Pucik, V. and Welbourne, T.M. (1999), “Managerial coping with organizational change: a dispositional perspective”, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 84 No. 1, pp. 107-122, doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.84.1.107.

[6] Shullman, S. L., & White, R. P. (2012). Build Leadership’s Tolerance for Ambiguity. Chief Learning Officer, 11(10), 30-33.

  • Do you know what that really means? Or have you ever feared for your life while driving in a heavily secured military convoy in a foreign country being struck by a civil war? These theoretical approaches at a green desk are far away from real life.

    • Thanks for your challenge.
      It was not the intention to come across purely theoretical nor ignoring terrible realities like war. I’m sorry if you felt otherwise.
      I hope the article was clear in that the context in which the concept of Tolerance for Ambiguity (TFA) is presented does not relate to war situations. Such an extreme setting would require separate research, although TFA may be a significant factor in how to cope with a variety of different situations. My article’s scope is expressively related to organizational behavior and global workplaces. My experience is in working in rapidly changing information technology and global businesses, cross-cultural teams, and living and working in different countries (e.g., Western and Eastern Europe, US, Israel, Japan, Singapore, and India).
      Could I clarify?

      • What I have mentioned was my global work place in 1999 in Algeria working for a multinational company with colleagues everywhere. I have chosen this radical example because what you are writing is just a nice CEO powerpoint introduction, nice words and slogans which I have heard hundreds of times. So you do not answer my question regarding reality, it is just theory nothing else.

      • Hi, and thanks for the helpful discussion.
        With all respect, whatever you have gone through, do you believe that your experiences are unique in the sense of how much uncertainty you’ve experienced? Don’t you know that everybody is confronted with uncertainty in life anyway? We are all the same distance away from death, whether we are in a zone of war or an ivory tower! This so important to repeat: We are all the same distance away from death! This is the nature of life, and to answer your question, yes this is real, for everybody! So, what is your level of tolerance of ambiguity if you insist so much in only you suffering the ambiguity of life alone? It is impossible to judge how certain or uncertain ours or others’ circumstances are and what each’s uncertainty awareness is. We should tolerate that we don’t know, avoid complaining, look forward, and make the best of it. That’s what the article is about.
        As a side note, don’t confuse scientific references with impracticality. And last but not least, I’d like to thank you again; you helped me remember that it is crucial for good articles to add personal examples and link topics back to the fundamental nature of life. Take care!

      • I have not judged you as a person. How can you dare to judge me after reading just this comment?! I dislike very much such psychological games. So be happy, I will not disturb you again.

      • Neither did I!
        It was in no way my intention to judge personally. As you challenged the reality of the writings from a “green desk,” so did I ask questions back. I thought about this a lot in the meanwhile, would have chosen some wording a bit less challenging, and wanted to come back to you and ask for more insight instead. Your experience may be precious to learn more about how to approach the topic. Your input even motivated me to do more research; I’m currently writing an additional article, which I wanted to link here. I think we may have confused a bit ‘uncertainty’ with ‘ambiguity’ also, for example. You did not disturb at all and it would be great if we could continue this and/or any other discussion. Thanks

    • How is driving in a heavily secured military convoy in a foreign country in a civil war “ambiguous”?

      That is kind of the opposite of ambiguity, isn’t it?

      • Well quite easy, this is the “cross-cultural work” and “taking risk” like demanded in the post as it may happen sometimes in reality. Be happy that you never had to experience such!

      • Well first, there is nothing “ambiguous” about working for a military or defense organization; these are not the kinds of workplaces where ambiguity reigns supreme. You are fully trained to know what to do in any combat situation; you know exactly who your co-workers and superiors are, there is no standing around wondering what you should be doing at any given moment of your workday. Am I correct?

        Mr. Sager’s post was not specifying the kind of workplace, he was generalizing. This is an important distinction because in generalization, it is going to applicable to ALL workplaces, and clearly there is a wide range of different kinds of workplaces. His article was more specific to organizational workplaces that do not involve war zones and a military or LEO management hierarchy.

        Your type of workplace environment would have necessitated a wholly different approach; one suited to military/LEO workplaces. Sager could have easily written the post with you guys in mind IF he not been generalizing to the greater workplace spectrum that involves everything else.

        In other words, cut the guy some slack for NOT having a strictly Military/LEO orientation and perhaps broaden your own horizons. Many other “people on the ground” are civilians who are by no means trained to handle your job.


      • We are looking for answers all our life, but at the momen I ant just thinking of a nice summer and forthcoming holidays. So till end of August really not much time for the blogosphere. The analog world waiting for me .All the best @ Ulli

  • In the real world, information is never complete, interpretation is always wanting, and actions are always flawed. That, to me, is the nature of life, and ambiguity.

    As transmutation points out, the “fog of war,” more like chaos than ambiguity. I read the Red Badge of Courage again after my tour in Vietnam. Tolerance of anything is limited by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I think tolerance becomes feasible on his pyramid above the second level, “safety.” That is the environment I find most common in the US. Yet, some places and some people are not good bets for good outcomes from tolerance.

  • In the real world, as you put it Mr. Von Smith…what to you is “the real world”? Mr. Sager is clearly an academic, writing for a broad range audience that could come from literally ANY industry. In a GENERAL sense, his post has merit to ANY industry, it was not meant for only one specific industry, if it had been, it would have been TAILORED to THAT specific industry and likely peppered with appropriate keywords and acronyms in addition to other information clearly identifying that specific industry.

    Why criticize someone for what you seem to interpret as not dealing with a “real world”, when really the problem seems to be a lack of understanding of what the word “ambiguity” means, as well as a very myopic view that only includes workplaces in war zones? Look outside the war zone, there’s literally billions of organizations this article applies to that is not either U.S. centric or military/LEO centric. And even if someone in an U.S. or military/LEO organization wanted to apply Mr. Sager’s article to their workplace, it could be done; easily, by someone capable of thinking outside small boxes.

    • This article triggered some strong responses. Mine was not that intense. I reread what I wrote, and found nothing sharply critical. The point is that everything is ambiguous (definition: “open to or having several possible meanings or interpretations; equivocal”) As long as people are involved, there will be ambiguity.

      It would be easy to interpret your remarks as condescending, especially the supercilious “Small boxes.” reference.

      • Mr. Von Smith…the world (and other people) do not revolve around your personal viewpoint. You seem a bit hung up on the fact that the author was not addressing workplaces in war zones like you seem to think he should have. Get over it. Move on. Have a nice day.

        Also, I really don’t care if you found my remarks condescending. I found yours narcissistic and self-centered. We will just chalk it all up to subjective impressions.

        Have a nice day.

  • Effective leadership often means dealing effectively with ambiguity. You don’t always know if you are making the right decisions, decisions that are often made with incomplete data lacking some details. You have to make decisions based on experience and best guess sometimes.

    • Hi, Joshua.
      Excellent point, thanks for adding that! It’s exactly as you mention, to trust it will be fine despite incomplete or even conflicting decision-data. In my opinion/experience, if the overall intention/gut feeling is right, details don’t matter so much as the way will clarify them “automatically” anyway. Thanks again and all the best!