Ambiguity: the emerging impact of mindfulness for change leaders

Ambiguity: the emerging impact of mindfulness for change leaders

Organizations around the world have a growing need to adapt faster and faster. During a time of rapid adaptation to new systems and strategies, what has worked for organizations and their members in the past is simply not enough as transformational change is required, and substantial ambiguity mounts. Today the demand for change leaders that can effectively deal with ambiguity is high. At the same time, recent organizational research suggests that leaders drawing on mindfulness manage ambiguity in new and different ways.

In this study, organizational scholars, using a parallel convergent mixed method design, explore the emerging impact of mindfulness on change leaders in their ability to deal with ambiguity.

Who Conducted the Study?

Julie Chesley and Avonlie Wylson

Julie A. Chesley is an Associate Professor of Organizational Theory at Pepperdine University, where she is the Director of Pepperdine’s Masters of Science in Organizational Development (MSOD) program. Avalonie Wylson is a graduate of the MSOD program at Pepperdine, and is an individual, team, and organizational effectiveness consultant.

Terms Used:

Ambiguity (Bennett & Lemonie, 2014; Horney, Pasmore, & O’Shea, 2010):

“A state of uncertainty where causal relations are unclear or when there are multiple possible interpretations or vagueness in precise meaning.”

Transformational Organizational Change (Callan, 1993; Robinson & Griffiths, 2005):

“A significant event that may cause a great deal of stress for employees or amplify existing stress as they try to cope with the accompanying uncertainty, ambiguity, and the feelings of personal loss that often occur during such a change.”


“‘A complex and multi-dimensional concept’ (Dhiman, 2009, p. 55) that involves ‘rigorous mental practice’ to develop ‘focus, awareness and living in the moment’ (Sethi, 2009).” “The mindful person accepts situations for what they are in a non-judgmental way (Barbezat & Bush, 2013; Gardner & Moore, 2007; Han & Zhang, 2011).” “When in a mindful state, we ‘disengage from our habitual patterns of reactivity and come closer to clear comprehension of any situation’ (Barbezat & Bush, 2013, p. 96; Sauer & Kohls, 2011)”.

Awareness (Brown & Ryan, 2003, p. 822; Brown, Ryan Creswell, 2007):

“The background “radar” of consciousness, continually monitoring the inner and outer environment”

Mindful Change Leader (Chesley and Wilson, 2016):

“A mindful change leader can keep the big picture in mind while at the same time being self-aware, focused in the present moment, and able to respond to what comes up in that moment without a lot of angst or worry.”

Personal/internal practices for Managing Ambiguity (Chesley and Wilson, 2016):

Are the “activities that the leaders [do] for themselves to help manage their own reactions to ambiguity.”

External Mechanisms for Managing Ambiguity (Chesley and Wilson, 2016):

“Reaching out to other people and/or organizations to look for tools and advice [one] could use to manage their reactions to ambiguity.”

Resilience-Building during transformational change includes the following 3 activities (Chesley and Wilson, 2016):

  1. Understanding:“Offering empathy and support while building personal relationships with their team.”
  2. Coaching:“Coaching on how to deal with the change and normalize the distress that typically affects employees during the ambiguous circumstances of transformational change.”
  3. Purposeful Engagement:“Making sure that employees are involved in the activities of the change and clear about their role in the process.”

What did they find?

The overall findings found that mindfulness enhances leaders’ abilities to interact with others, maintain perspective, and attune with others’ emotional states. The change leaders scoring highest in the mindfulness assessment report to more frequently practice self-awareness and self-care, while spending increased attention and focus on building capacity through resilience by understanding, coaching, and initiating purposeful engagement.

After assessing each change leader’s level of mindfulness, determined next was the impact of ambiguity that change leaders experienced personally during transformational change. The findings varied and were not related to the level of mindfulness of the leader. Participants reported feelings ranging from “‘total depletion and exhaustion’” to personally “‘thriv[ing] on [ambiguity]’”.

Following the assessments on the impact of ambiguity, they looked to understand how change leaders coped with ambiguity, and spotlighted particular attention on the strategies used by the five participants with the highest level of mindfulness scores compared to those used by the five participants with the lowest scores. The coping strategies generally used by the participants consisted of a variety of self-care and self-awareness personal practices including: physical exercise and yoga, meditation and prayer, therapy and coaching, and doing things to relax such as going for a walk outside and being in nature.

Aside from personal practices, the mindful change leaders, according to the findings, most often were observed to have taken the initiative of consulting with senior leaders as well as seeking professional advice and other types of assistance from mentors, coaches and trusted advisors. These activities would fall under the external mechanisms for managing ambiguity.

Meanwhile, interestingly, the less mindful change leaders rarely turned to executives, mentors, and coaches. Rather, they were more likely to seek educational sources about how to manage change and also to seek emotional support from spouses, friends, and colleagues as their primary ways of managing the uncomfortable feelings that arise from their situation of ambiguity. The less mindful leaders were also observed to have spoken about having emotional outburst and venting to others about their difficulties as coping mechanisms for ambiguity. While the low mindfulness change leaders sought external support, four of the five high mindful leaders also sought some type of external support, but in contrast did so by leveraging relationships with senior leaders or mentors to cope with the ambiguity.

After examining personal coping mechanisms and external sources of support, of interest was the capacity-building focus that change leaders implemented to manage ambiguity, and more specifically, their focus of building resilience in others. In this study, resilience-building activities from the participating change leaders included: understanding, coaching, and purposeful engagement.

The change leaders with higher mindfulness scores demonstrated a tendency to reframe ambiguity, removing the bad or negative connotations for their followers while looking to leverage the ambiguity to move things forwards.   Instead of citing the ambiguity as ambiguity, they looked at the situation with curiosity, flexibility and an open mind, and used this mindset to influence the people involved in the change effort. For example, one of the high-mindfulness participants expressed, “‘for me the ambiguity worked in my favor in the sense of I could use it to influence people. [I would say things like] ‘We don’t know how this is going to play out but we want to do “X”. We’re thinking this might work the best right now.’”

Also the high mindful change leaders talked about using curiosity and the tactic of questioning to build capacity. One perspective was: “‘asking powerful questions. Inquiry before advocacy…[this is] why ambiguity and mindfulness to me are closely related. Curiosity is the common link. Willingness to ask questions, to understand, and even when you think you do understand it’s always a useful tactic.’” Additionally, these high mindful change leaders described how they try to make the change process fun by bringing in food and creating social engagement among team members. Others among the high mindfulness category also said they like to leverage people’s natural strengths through the change process.

Overall, the most striking difference found between the two participant groups of highest and lowest mindfulness scores were the willingness of the high mindful leaders to involve employees in the change process and also switch up the composition of the teams involved as needed. This was particularly an uncommon practice among the group scoring lowest in mindfulness on the questionnaire.

Of the 19 participants in the study, all of them agreed that mindfulness is or would be helpful during a transformational change process. Furthermore, 16 of 19 participants reported having used a form of mindfulness during their transformational change effort to manage ambiguity. However, not every participant employing mindfulness was aware that they were utilizing mindfulness during their change effort. The most common forms of mindfulness employed through the change efforts were a mindful awareness and acceptance of self and others. Moreover, the most often cited way that mindfulness helped them through change—mentioned by 10 participants—was by helping support better relationships with their co-workers.

Other notable ways mindfulness assisted during transformational change was by giving them a broader frame of reference and balance between the big picture and the details. Additionally, mindfulness assisted these leaders in handling ambiguity through bolstering their ability to more easily harmonize with others by staying present in the moment, in order to take next appropriate steps, and generally stay calm and focused during the challenging ambiguous situation. Further, the participating change leaders believed that mindfulness has impact on others involved in the change effort, and primarily by affecting either the confidence of others or their perception of the change agents’ integrity and trustworthiness.

How did they find these results?

The research consisted of a parallel convergent mixed methods design exploring how change leaders leverage mindfulness to manage ambiguity during transformational change. First they recruited 19 experienced leaders of transformational organizational change, and defined ‘experienced’ based on whether they either held a senior position (director or above) or served as an external consultant to senior leadership, or participated in a leadership role in at least one strategic organizational change initiative.

Once the change leaders were identified, candidates were given the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire/FFMQ (Baer, Smith, Hopkins, Krietemeyer, & Toney, 2006). With 39 qualitative statements joined with a 5-point likert scale from 1 (never or very rarely true) to 5 (often or always true), the questionnaire assesed level of self-report mindfulness of each respondent.

Following the questionnaire, respondents were engaged with a one-hour interview to more fully assess how the change leaders coped with ambiguity during change and also how they helped others in the organization deal with ambiguity (full set of question and constructs of interest in appendix 1). Each interview was recorded with a unique identification code, converted to a transcript, and reviewed multiple times to analyze via content analysis for meaning and understanding. On the master notes, codes were highlighted including words, phrases, sentences and multiple sentences, that offered insight or knowledge regarding the focus areas of managing ambiguity and mindfulness. Through an iterative process, the coding continued until reflecting the underlying raw data and information contained, assigning micro and macro codes to organize the data into themes that were listed in a spreadsheet and divided into three major categories: impact of ambiguity, strategies for managing ambiguity, and capacity-building approaches (Codes and descriptions Appendix 2).

Overall, quantitative and qualitative data was analyzed concurrently, and mindfulness scores were calculated for each participant. This research process was accomplished through a parallel convergent mixed methods design.

Why are these findings important?

In particular, previous research has well documented the impact of ambiguity during change, and also widely explored and growing as a literature is how mindfulness is used to cope with stress. However, what is remarkable is that despite the tremendous growth of interest in mindfulness research attracting ‘4,000 scholarly articles’ referencing mindfulness by 2015 (Good et al., 2016, p. 115), only a scant variety of mindfulness research exists in the organizational context.

More broadly, in the historical context, Michelle Elliot’s invitation encouraging occupational engagement in the mindfulness discourse was relatively recent, and just about six years ago in 2011. More specifically related to the discourse today, placing the significance of this research, is that “little, if any, research has determined the degree to which mindfulness plays a role in a change practitioner’s ability to manage ambiguity and how mindfulness might influence how others in the organization experience the change process (Dhiman, 2009; Hülsheger, Alberts, Feinholdt, & Lang, 2013; Roche, Haar, & Luthans, 2014).”

Additionally relevant, and significantly relating to the organizational discourse, is the relationship of this research to the planned radical organizational change (PROC) literature that deals specifically with situations necessitating transformational change. In the PROC literature there is expressed lack of attention to the challenges that change agents face—such as ambiguity—during the later stages of PROC (beyond the planning stage), and in particular, during implementation. This study explicitly explores the role of the change agent beyond the planning phase and throughout the change effort, exploring their ability to manage ambiguity themselves and with others—even building resilience, which is serving to fill an important empirical gap. This research is also serving productive within the PROC literature that cites a lack of empirical understanding for the role that change agent legitimacy judgments play during implementation, where a need for further insight here has been mentioned. Accordingly, this research provides notable insight reporting the expressed belief by change leaders that mindfulness plays a role in the follower’s perception of specifically the change agents’ integrity and trustworthiness.

Further, understanding strategies to effectively manage ambiguity is important given that ambiguity commonly arises during organizational change. Today in our rapidly evolving context, organizations often need to adapt to new strategies, technologies and systems in order to keep competitive, and as a result, ambiguity is increasingly becoming a more common occurrence. As we continue forward, managing ambiguity and adapting is essential for an organization’s survival, in the sense that not adapting makes it easier to be surpassed by a competitor that does. Likewise, these findings may be particularly relevant to the many change leaders in high positions with long track records of experience because as rapid changes continue to occur both inside and outside of one’s industry, organization, and technological environment, serious questions do arise in how one will want to adapt to the evolving technological environment, organization, and position within the industry landscape.

Where can these results be applied?

These results can be applied to those interested in embracing change and adapting to our increasing and unprecedented opportunity to learn, connect, and grow with each other. Today we have the opportunity to foster organizational cultures that promote workplace flourishing, where we can receive significant advantages in talent acquisition and employee retention—to even organizational performance—while supporting employee meaning and life satisfaction. Organizational culture at this time is rising in importance to become a key sustainable competitive advantage as it is difficult to replicate, and provides significant advantages.

An example showcasing the success of adopting this flourishing organizational culture is Bridgewater Associates, an American investment manager fund out of Westport Connecticut that manages approximately $150 billion. This organization is regarded as a pioneer of its industry that is recognized as a top performing money manager, and from 2009-2014 alone, has been awarded over 40 industry awards. In 2014, Robert Kegan, an American developmental psychologist, highlights this example with his deliberately developmental model in his Harvard Business Review article Making Business Personal.

However, changing culture is difficult and can be a great challenge. For many organizations, adopting this type of culture would be considered a radical change, and thus, transformational change would be required to achieve such a culture along with its rewards. In this case, facing the challenge of ambiguity would be critical as it seems to always arise during transformational change (Chesley et al., 2016). Therefore, managing ambiguity can be necessary for adopting and adapting to an organizational culture that holds serious sustainable competitive advantages. With employee meaning and life satisfaction at stake, likely employees will walk across the street to the organization that builds this culture, and it would be in the strong interest of change leaders and organizations to lead by example taking this initiative.


Chesley, J., & Wylson, A. (2016). Ambiguity: the emerging impact of mindfulness for change leaders. Journal of Change Management16(4), 317-336.

3 thoughts on “Ambiguity: the emerging impact of mindfulness for change leaders

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *