That ambiguous and fluid organisational environments are commonplace and challenging is no secret. It's pretty much expected that, to be successful, employees must illustrate how well they can cope with and thrive in such conditions. There is, however, something somewhat paradoxical about how employees are expected to cope. Much current thinking suggests that the successful organisational member should have some core, internal, stable self to draw upon so that the constant external ambiguity doesn't induce harm. Flexibility and agility, despite being metaphors of the human body, are seen as organisational factors, not personal ones. The human at work needs to be consistent, reliable, static, unchanging. Indeed, we seem to have gone so far that we seem to expect that only experienced industry specialists who've spent countless years perfecting a single skillset could be capable of thriving in such fluid conditions. Is this really the case?
Before expanding on a theoretical answer, let me give an experiential one. Prior to embarking on my PhD research, I spent years as an organisational trainer and coach, working across a wide range of industries and interacting with all level of employee, from C-suite executives at major consultancy firms to apprentice hairdressers. The friends I had then all regarded me as a quiet, reserved, ultra-chilled type who went with the flow, which perhaps those who know me now might not recognise. Most people I've become friendly with in recent years might point to how much I talk as being the central tenet of my social persona. So, what's changed? Have I somehow destroyed my core self?
The Plastic, Flexible, Agile Self
In simple terms, no, of course I haven't. When I was training and coaching, my success lay in my ability to turn on a performance as much as it did in imbuing knowledge. My clients wanted to learn while being entertained, improve core skills while appreciating tangential departures, to blend professionalism and collegiality, to develop themselves whilst enjoying the experience. To achieve that, and retain the coaching/training contract, I had to be "on" all the time. My coaching and training performance was a vital part of "me" or "my self". Indeed, my livelihood depended on it. However, it was not something I wanted to have turned on the whole time, or, indeed, something that was possible to keep on the whole time. I needed time to recharge. Consequently, many of the friendships I developed during this period were with people who were comfortable with my relative silence and relaxed state of mind in their presence.
During my PhD research, the opposite was in play. To succeed in writing a complex, theoretical PhD, I had to embrace the silence, avoid the tangential, focus on narrowness, concentrate on the non-verbal. An opposing persona to the one I had spent my professional life developing and one I detached from in social gatherings. Hence the chattiness my more recent friends experience. Yet, at the same time, I wanted my PhD to be read by world-leaders in the field. The only chance I had was to impress them into taking me and my research seriously at international management conferences. To do that, I had to revert to my "other" persona. Ultimately, I succeeded. I submitted the complex, theoretical PhD I had envisioned, got it examined by three recognised world leaders in the field, and received effusive praise from them as to its quality. However, much of the research I was reading on the self was suggesting the plasticity of self I was cultivating and relying on was somehow psychologically harmful, and I should try to reconnect with my stable, core, authentic self. I didn't feel psychologically stressed (stressed, yes, as anyone doing a PhD would immediately understand), but not because of flexibility in my persona or self.
Although my research is far more sociological and philosophical than psychological, the gap between what I was reading in psychological research and what I was experiencing in my personal life was troubling. I wanted to draw from a model that celebrated plasticity and flexibility of self without suggesting it wasn't authentic or psychologically distressing. Although I didn't include it in my PhD or publish the research, I did find such a model buried in the origins of research into ambivalence and its relationship to ambiguity. I don't want to bore whoever reads this more than I already have, so I won't discuss the historical development of the theory and/or the theoretical battles that were waged around it (costing at least one person his career and, ultimately, his life). What I would like to do is explain where plasticity and fragmentation of the self is problematic and where it can be a vital coping strategy for those working in ambiguous and fluid organisational environments. To do that, I'd like to examine three elements of self; the processual self, the independent self and the interdependent self.
The Processual Self: A less dryly academic terms is perhaps the historical self (not that it helps much!). This is basically your collection of memories about yourself from birth and how you make sense of yourself via the telling of stories about your life. Perhaps rather obviously, flexibility, fragmentation and fluidity in this sense of self can be problematic. It can, for example, lead to feelings that multiple selves inhabit one body, gaps in the perception of time, and incoherent readings of how you are perceived and how you perceive others. Research into lack of stability into this element of self quickly shifts into discussions and debates about mental health, which, as suggested earlier, hugely informs the notion of a stable, core self being healthy. Whilst I accept the necessity of this research in terms of understanding mental health, I think it has too great influence across management research, which is why the notion of a fluid self being helpful to coping strategies in ambiguous environments has not taken.
The Independent Self: This is the collection of traits that you draw upon when you tell the story of who you are today and now. As we all want to be the hero of our own narrative, it is usually a collection of positive traits that are backed up by experiential evidence. For example, you might describe yourself as an effective manager because your dedication to completing tasks ensures you and your team always hit deadlines well before time. At this point, it is all well and good. I'm a good manager, I've evidence to prove it, I can express it coherently and others are accepting my heroic story. However, we often defend against counter-evidence in a manner that freezes us into a self that we perhaps don't want to be. Say, for example, said "effective manager" also experiences a high turnover rate in his team because his obsession with deadlines prevents his team from having the time to reflect upon processes/systems and improve them via input directly related to their skillset and experience. Although deadlines are consistently hit, frustrations grow about how they are hit and team members choose to leave. He needs to recognise his perceived strength is, in fact, a weakness.
Unfortunately, this manager is likely to have put so much cognitive effort into correlating hitting deadlines with effective management that a challenge to his description of self will produce painful dissonance. His cognitive defences might be so extreme that he blames team members for not helping if they ever question his belief or suggest doing things in other ways. Instead of becoming flexible, he becomes increasingly obsessed with hitting deadlines to the detriment of his team and his own performance, eventuating in the inevitable painful realisation that is his, in fact, an ineffective manager, his heroic self forever shattered, potentially leading to unwanted instability. The "flexibility of self" construct that we must defend against in the processual sense is something he needed to embrace in the independent sense in order to maintain his career success. By not doing so, he made his life, his team's life and the organisational environment far more difficult than it needed to be, and he became the architect of his own downfall.
The Interdependent Self: We all occupy many roles. We are friends, lovers, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, colleagues, managers, subordinates, employees, plus many other more specialised things. Each role has a different set of rules guiding it. Breaking those rules is weird. For example, greet your partner tomorrow with a strong, firm handshake and your boss with a peck on the cheek. No? I wonder why not.
To succeed across these role sets requires a great degree of flexibility of self. We must and do differentiate between requirements to be caring, forceful, helpful, demanding, relaxed, energetic, studious, active (and many more) during everyday activity. We make snap decisions hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day as to how to behave with this person in this situation without any cognitive or psychological stress. The personas we switch between are often very different and we do it without a second thought. Flexibility in this element of self is as natural to us as breathing. The only issue is juggling incompatible expectations between different roles (e.g. boss v husband/wife), but that's another story. Despite strong elements of this sense of self informing notions of identity work, its inherent usefulness to those experiencing organisational ambiguity, unfortunately, flies well below the radar of most management research. That is unfortunate as I think it can be hugely helpful for those doing their best to cope with ambiguity and fluidity on a daily basis.
Coping with Ambiguity in the Workplace
The flexibility inherent to the interdependent self is what we need to celebrate to succeed in ambiguous and fluid workplaces, extending it to the independent self to help us adapt when our first, or more natural, instincts are failing. We must become comfortable in quickly analysing the social situation and changing our inter-relational strategies in order to best deal with it. We must stop searching for or relying on core, authentic selves on which to ground all experience and instead celebrate being people of no and all qualities, meaning that in having plasticity or flexibility across all aspects of our self we can agilely and immediately access the qualities of self vital for the task at hand, before packing them away again in readiness for whatever next comes our way.
Although it is not my area of specialty, I have previously coached and discussed these aspects of self with a hugely talented individual whose inability to move beyond fixed descriptions informing her processual and independent self were preventing her from being all she could be. She found the notion of roles hugely liberating, never before having felt she could isolate the experiences and skills of her personal life from those of her professional and feeling that the expectations of the former were inhibiting the latter. Working in a highly fluid and extremely ambiguous environment, she has since blossomed and is becoming the successful, well-rounded individual that those who worked with her all knew she could be. She has a way to go (don't we all!) but I have complete confidence she will develop into an exceptional leader.
My advice to those struggling to handle ambiguity in the workplace is think of the experience as a collection of games to be played, each which comes with its own rule set, requires a specific set of interpersonal skills and often has to be worked out on the fly. Let the situation and the players guide you. Don't rely on learned behaviours when they don't fit. Listen, watch, adapt, succeed. Celebrate that you can be a multiple you and use the you that is right for the situation to succeed.