Ambiguity, resilience, and the Stockdale Paradox

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Mental resilience water flowing around rock

“You need to get comfortable with ambiguity” was what my old boss told me. I really struggled with this, partly because the ambiguity was everywhere, and nothing seemed to make sense: from the strategic narrative to the organisational structure.

Since I had this conversation I have read and researched more into how we work as human beings. In my book, I have a whole chapter dedicated to understanding people because I believe it’s fundamentally important for us to understand each other to enable better working relationships.

One of the main things I talk about when I speak about communication in the workplace is how we work as human beings. Specifically, how we are designed dislike ambiguity. How we have to be able to predict what is happening to stay safe and how we make up stories when we don’t know.

Over the last 18 months my research and learning has continued in various areas and more recently it has been around resilience. There is a clear link between building mental resilience and communication, which is why I now have an expert in my team (John Humphreys) and offer workshops to help teams explore this.

As my reading and research continue, the link between ambiguity and resilience is even clearer. When it comes to “getting comfortable with ambiguity”, what can we take from the traits of resilient people to enable us to be OK with change?

Adaptability – in a recent workshop, John talked about how we need to be more like a tree. A tree will bend in the wind, it will flow with its surroundings. Likewise, water will flow around a rock, it won’t just stop. Given my nature to fix things (and the very essence of The Field ModelTM), being adaptable is key. There is always a way forward and there is always a solution, it’s just about discovering it. You have to find that way around the rock and you have to let your surroundings guide you so that you can move forward, even if it feels more sideways at the time.

Humour – things aren’t always funny but you can see the funny side of things. Most people I know will comment on how I am always smiling. I’m genuinely a very smiley person and it’s rare that I’ll go a day without laughing. However, I do take what I do seriously, and I know the impact it has on individuals, teams, and organisations but that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun while I do it. I’ve been caught in the wheel of seriousness before and it wasn’t healthy for me – as Advita Patel often quotes for those in communications and PR, “we work in PR not ER!”

Hopeful equanimity – optimism is not always the best approach. It can be unhelpful and can have devastating consequences if it isn’t grounded in realism. Cue hopeful equanimity. I came across this when I was reading Ross Edgley’s book, The Art of Resilience. There is a story in there that stayed with me and one that I shared last year both on LinkedIn and on Instagram:

Admiral James Stockdale had a coping strategy while in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted, not only that I would get out, but that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining experience of my life, which in retrospect I would not trade.”

Optimists will say “we are going to be out by Christmas” and then “we are going to be out by Easter”. The optimists in the camp died.

Stockdale says: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end (which you can never afford to lose) with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”

In other words, have faith, but don’t tie the hope to an external circumstance that you can’t control.

Stockdale was firm in his hopeful equanimity rather than optimism. Equanimity is calmness and composure, especially in a difficult situation. It’s about having the balance of hope and optimism with realism.  

We aren’t designed to be OK with ambiguity. We are designed to ensure we are safe and that nothing will cause us harm. Ambiguous situations make us uncomfortable because we can’t predict what’s going to happen and as a result we cannot be kept “safe”.

But we can take steps to build our resilience, and this will allow us to take that edge off. Steps that will give us the confidence to keep moving forward and not be paralysed by the fear of the unknown.

If you want to know more about how to build resilient teams, you can download Five elements to building mentally resilient teams, which explains the model we’ve created to foster and maintain team resilience. If you’d like to explore some bespoke sessions for your team or organisation you can get in touch here.

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