4 Ways to Build Your Tolerance of Ambiguity—and Your Global Career

4 Ways to Build Your Tolerance of Ambiguity—and Your Global Career 
Image by Alex Roldan 

Narrated by Marie T. Russell

Video version

Do you feel comfortable—and even thrive—in settings that aren’t predictable? Do you view ambiguous and unknown situations as exciting rather than stressful? If you answered “yes” or “maybe” to either of these questions, working in other cultures or collaborating with international teams may be the perfect career fit.

People with a high tolerance of ambiguity are built for discovering new cultures, foods, world views, and foreign languages. They’re more able to navigate surprising and often-unspoken cultural assumptions and reactions—what a culture views as good or bad, right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate. Additionally, research has connected traits such as tolerance and openness with many positive life outcomes, including happiness, creativity, and a motivation to learn.

Even if your tolerance of ambiguity is lower, there are proven ways to build this important cultural agility competency. Start with one or two of the following strategies and practice them until they become part of your routine or lifestyle.

1. Increase your mindfulness.

Mindfulness is being fully present in the moment, aware of your thoughts, feelings, and body’s sensations. People with a higher level of mindfulness are more open to new experiences because they’re fully present in those experiences—without labeling or judging them through their own cultural lens.

Mindfulness is a skill, and you can learn it with some practice. Try this: wherever you are right now, tune in to what you’re thinking and feeling. Just be present for a few minutes. If you’re eating or drinking something, do so with intention by actively processing the taste, smell, and texture. As you walk, be fully aware of the sights, sounds, and smells.

Another way to build your mindfulness is through meditation. People who meditate experience a state of mindfulness and learn to be more present in daily life. A good place to start is by taking slow, deep breaths. If you’re lying down, contract and release muscles in each part of your body, from your head to your toes. Popular apps, such as Headspace and Calm, can also get you started.

2. Avoid black-and-white thinking.

Do you use extreme phrases in conversation, such as “That’s perfect,” “How terrible,” “Truly outstanding,” or “What a disaster”? Sure, there are a few genuine uses for extreme responses. But if you’re prone to using them, you’re engaging in what’s known as dichotomous thinking, a tendency to define situations as either the best or worst with no middle ground.

Dichotomous thinking fosters unrealistic assessments of situations and pushes you into black-and-white thinking, which is the opposite of what you need to build a tolerance of ambiguity.

Does this sound like you? If you aren’t sure, review old emails and heighten your awareness during your calls and conversations. Make a conscious effort to hear how frequently you use blank-and-white words and phrases. You can also enlist support from a trusted coworker, friend, or partner to flag them for you.


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Once you know how often you use these words, opt for more accurate—and probably less dramatic—responses. For example, if a coworker selects a time for a meeting, don’t reply with “That’s perfect!” Try “Yes, I’m available.” If you’re describing your long morning commute, swap “It was a parking lot!” with “It took me about 10 minutes longer this morning.” In these examples, the former statement is more colorful, but the latter is more accurate.

Your ability to accurately describe a situation will serve you well in cross-cultural environments because you’ll be using description rather than judgment. You’ll reflect and inquire about what you’re experiencing and form judgments only when you fully and accurately understand what you’re observing.

3. Slow down your decision-making.

Do you know how long it takes you to form an opinion or draw a conclusion? In a world where quick decisions are valued, it’s challenging to withhold opinions and slow our decision-making. If you’re like many busy professionals today, speed is a habit. But when working cross-culturally, speed can lead to ineffective decisions and inaccurate assessments.

How can you slow things down? First, recognize your baseline. Over the next few weeks, in your meetings, conversations, and introductions, identify how long it took you to evaluate a situation, decide on an option, or form an impression about a person. After five, 10, and 15 minutes, pause for a second to rate your assessment. Did your first impression hold up? At what minute marker do your opinions tend to hold?

Now that you know your baseline, try to actively and consciously delay forming opinions, keeping in mind that you’ll make faster judgments in your home setting than in new or different cultures.

4. Incorporate stretch experiences.

stretch experience is the act of putting yourself outside your comfort zone and trying something new. It will push at the edges of your tolerance—but not stretch you so far that you retreat to the psychological comfort of what’s known and familiar. If that happens, you can lose interest in learning about a new culture altogether.

Here are a few ways to start, arranged from the easiest to most difficult:

  • Invite a colleague from another country to lunch, dinner, coffee, or a drink after work, and identify a few things you both have in common.
  • Volunteer in your hometown, but choose an activity that puts you in a position of novelty. If you have the gift of sight, volunteer at a school for the visually impaired. If you’re young, volunteer at a nursing home. If you’ve never known hunger, volunteer at a homeless shelter.
  • Ask to be a part of a global team. Many organizations use cross-border, virtual, and global teams composed of members from geographically dispersed locations. The peer-level team interaction and common goals can provide rich cross-cultural experiences.
  • Accept an international assignment. You can also gain a greater tolerance of ambiguity through living and working in a host country for a year or more. If you want a greater stretch experience, ask to live outside of the expatriate community, participate in immersion language classes, and practice speaking the language with host nationals.
  • Accept an international volunteer assignment where you’ll be working mostly with host nationals. These situations often are the greatest stretch because you’ll need to adapt and immerse yourself fully to be valuable to the nonprofit organization.

With these strategies, the next time you get on a plane or a Zoom call to meet a client or vendor in another country, you’ll be bringing a critical resource every culturally agile professional needs—a tolerance of ambiguity.

©2021 Paula Caligiuri.
Reproduced with permission
of the publisher, Kogan Page Ltd.

Article Source:

Build Your Cultural Agility: The Nine Competencies of Successful Global Professionals
by Paula Caligiuri

book cover: Build Your Cultural Agility: The Nine Competencies of Successful Global Professionals by Paula CaligiuriBuild Your Cultural Agility focuses on nine specific competencies that comprise cultural agility: three self-management competencies (tolerance of ambiguity, curiosity and resilience), three relationship-management competencies (humility, relationship-building and perspective-taking) and three task-management competencies (cultural minimization, cultural adaptation and cultural integration). Within each chapter, the author provides a case example of that competency in action, explains why the competency is critical for success, offers a self-awareness exercise to help you determine your level of proficiency and concludes with suggestions for self-development. 

For more info and/or to order this book, click here. Also available in hardcover format and as a Kindle edition.

About the Author

photo of Paula CaligiuriPaula Caligiuri is a D'Amore-McKim School of Business Distinguished Professor of International Business at Northeastern University and president of TASCA Global, a consulting firm that specializes in assessing and developing culturally agile professionals.

Her new book is Build Your Cultural Agility: The Nine Competencies of Successful Global Professionals, and she offers a (free) cultural agility development tool at myGiide.com.

More books by this Author.

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