Living with Ambiguity

June 2, 2010

When I was an Executive Director and hiring staff, I liked to hire people who had international experience.  There are many skills one learns from living in another culture that in many ways are great life skills. Michael Keizer writes about some here “Eleven Helpful Skills”. The competency I was particularly interested in for NGO staff work was ‘flexibility’ or what I like to call ‘living with ambiguity’.

There are often many routes to take in pursuing a solution, especially when different cultures come into play, and a lot that’s out of our control.  Recognizing this, being flexibility regarding things you can’t control, and creating alternative pathways, can be a very important skill in any NGO, one that is engaging internationally or not.

When I was living in China I was interested in working with someone locally to conduct a series of interviews with association members (associations pre-dated most NGO activity).  I thought this might be a good project for a student intern wanting to learn about the field.  But after talking to the third faculty member in the business/management school who told me “This is an interesting idea, but you should talk to…” I realized that something was going on here.  A colleague who was able to “translate” between cultures cued me in that they didn’t want to say no, but their system didn’t know what to do with such a request.  So I took another path…I found a Western teacher of English who would understand my request and who then found a student interested in the project to practice her English. It would have been easy to say “this isn’t going to work” but by being flexible and taking a different path, I was able to accomplish what I had hoped to.

Another story comes from Tom Dawkins, most recently social media specialist for Ashoka and an expatriate Australian living in the US.  Tom notes that “the cultural differences between Australia and the U.S. do not seem, on the surface, to matter very much. But perhaps because our cultures are so similar the differences can trip you up in subtle ways. One thing I had to learn how to do in America is talk myself up more. Australians are mostly self-effacing and our culture can be harsh towards ‘tall poppies’ who try to stand out too much. American culture celebrates and encourages standing out, and in a workplace you need to be able to advocate for yourself, your ideas and your contributions in order to have impact. Living overseas, even in a country as similar to Australia as America, gives you a great appreciation for difference, diversity and flexibility.”  Tom expands on the theme of uncertainty and flexibility further in a blog post he recently wrote  “Being Comfortable with Uncertainty”

The flexibility of adapting your approach to the situation at hand illustrated in my story and Tom’s was  the kind of flexibility I was looking for in staff members. When you’re living in a culture different from your own, while the non-verbal signals may be clear to natives, they may be more ambiguous to you.  One gets good at “living with ambiguity” and finding ways to work with it.  A valuable life skill.