What Should Students Know About Ambiguity?

Clarity plays a vital role in the classroom, but ambiguity challenges our understanding of rules and reality. It pushes students to confront the unknown, expand their horizons, and thrive in uncertain times.

Stukent® author Terry Sullivan values ambiguity. Terry is an assistant professor at Webster University’s School of Business and School of Communications in St. Louis, Missouri. Terry has 30 years of experience as an entrepreneur and corporate employee. He’s the author and subject matter expert for two Stukent Simternships™ and courseware: the Marketing Management Bundle and the Brand Management Bundle.  

In this contributing post, Terry shares his experience teaching students about ambiguity.

Dealing With Ambiguity

A former student made this sign for me, including kind thoughts from a group of students with whom I was particularly close. These students gave this sign to me because the concept of ambiguity is something I reinforce in all of my courses. Former students from many years ago still message me and say that ambiguity was one of the most valuable concepts they learned because it is so prevalent in their daily lives.

I always pose these questions to students: 

“How many of you are comfortable with ambiguity?” No hands go up. 

“Does everyone know what ‘ambiguity’ means?” Several hands go up. 

Then I ask, “Are you uncomfortable having to do things without explicit direction or knowing exactly how to do something?” 

Invariably, every hand goes up.

I stress the need to handle ambiguity because nobody will stand over our students and tell them what to do. They will have to figure it out. But if one is not prepared for ambiguity, it will hurt … a lot. So, the more students take control of the expectations of what is or is not in front of them, the better they will manage the unknowns.

I recently had a long conversation with a graduate student entering the job market after graduating with an MBA. At one point in the discussion, he said, “When I was in your digital marketing course, I thought, ‘Here is a guy who has it figured out.’ After all, you are a consultant, a professor, an author … you know what you’re doing and have figured it all out.”

I laughed rather unceremoniously and assured him that even at 58 years old, I would likely never have it figured out. Then came another micro-dissertation on ambiguity! While many people have a focused and clear career path, most do not. I intimated that in my case, I characterize my career progression as an ambiguous “train wreck” where one thing crashed into another. Lo and behold, the winding track fraught with crazy turns and blind spots was a master’s degree in managing ambiguity.

Love It or Hate It, the Real World Is “Real” 

I often use the term “real world” with my students, and sometimes I wince at doing so because it sounds condescending or demeaning. After all, being a student is real, too; it’s just a different kind of reality. But the real world is laden with ambiguity — more so for some than others, but it extends beyond the job into every facet of life.

I am surprised at how many students are “shell-shocked” around graduation and beyond. Anxiety escalates before getting an internship and intensifies until they secure a job. But the process of obtaining a job is ambiguous — that is putting it mildly. It is a brutal and broken process that can trample even the strongest and most optimistic spirits. But many are also surprised by what a position entails versus what they learned and prepared for as students.

I attempt to paint an accurate picture for them without dimming their view, because it is about our perspective and how we view things. Most start in unglamorous roles with fewer responsibilities and making less money than anticipated. But true learning and growth occur where the pain and discomfort are … and that’s where the ambiguity is prevalent. 

We All Have to Deal With It 

As an entrepreneur, I started my consulting business, Strategic Glue, amid the recession of 2008-2009. In the dot-com bust of 2001, I lost a business, a lot of money, and my beloved Audi TT with a manual transmission. In both cases, I did not know if or when I would land any new consulting projects or if I could even find a job. In both cases, I was well into my career and had experience at varying levels. But I look back on those painful and trying periods and recognize that dealing with ambiguity is an essential life skill, which means it is also an essential business skill.

Life and business can be difficult enough during good times, but how do we manage something unknown? For those of us who are self-employed, ambiguity is a way of life. We have to figure it out every day. But uncertainty rears its head in virtually every facet of life. For example, what we all witnessed during 2020-2022 with COVID-19 and a fractured economy. Other common examples include finding a job, losing a job, and losing a loved one, among many others.

Managing Ambiguity Breeds Confidence 

The first way to handle ambiguity is to realize we cannot control the externals. However, we can control the internals: how we react to that lack of control and, ultimately, our words, thoughts, and actions. Acceptance is big. It is the starting point. Leaning into it is even bigger. Why? Because managing ambiguity breeds confidence. 

Picture this real scenario: “Jen, hey, listen … we have a board meeting, and I need to submit a deck to management. I can’t provide a lot of oversight as I have all these meetings, but can you throw some slides together that highlight some of our major account milestones, KPIs, etc.?”

That was an actual request from a director to a coordinator. Should there be more details? Yes. Should there be more structure? Yes. Should a coordinator be doing this? Probably not. But when Jen ran with it and returned with what she thought were great highlights, including some important KPIs, they served as the building blocks of a successful presentation. Jen became the go-to person from that day forward.

There Is Only One Person We Can All Rely On

Great opportunities often arise from ambiguous situations. However, if our students operate from a place of fear and anxiety, they may miss opportunities. Ambiguity often lurks in times of opportunity to test existing knowledge or focus on skills we want to refine or develop. Opportunity rarely knocks on our door; we need to find the right door and open it ourselves (and that likely entails opening many “wrong” doors, too).

Ways to Implement Ambiguity in Your Courses 

There are numerous ways to help students foster acceptance and even an appreciation for dealing with ambiguity: 

  1. More unstructured assignments: Use fewer rigid rules around formatting or even the actual format (i.e., paper versus PowerPoint versus podcast). 
  2. Group assignments: Let students figure out roles and responsibilities. Most of our students will be on a team in the workforce, so they need to ascertain how to be on a team where they contribute in constructive ways. 
  3. Scenario-based assignments: Use individual or group assignments that present scenarios where the student must choose a course of action based on unexpected variables or circumstances. 
  4. Dedicate a class to ambiguity: Foster an open discussion with scenarios and allow space for students to ask questions, express comments, and more.  
  5. Reinforce the concept wherever possible: My ambiguity sign says it all. 

There Is Power in Surrender

Ambiguity is a constant in life and business. But if our students surrender to the notion that ambiguity is everywhere, they can mitigate a lot of fear and anxiety due to ambiguity. Helping students manage ambiguity means demystifying it, which changes how they react to it versus feeling powerless — it starts with us.

I love to talk to fellow educators. Please reach out to me on LinkedIn or at [email protected].

Terry developed Stukent’s Marketing Management Bundle and the Brand Management Bundle. He also shared his expert insights in his 2021 ProfCon session, “The Missing Pieces of Marketing Management.”

Stukent is here to help educators help students help the world. To learn more about our first-in-the-world Simternships and courseware, or to get FREE instructor access to our products, visit our website.

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