Ambiguity, one of the new buzzwords you can hear in the interviews. Speaking honestly, back in the day when I was interviewing for jobs (which was indeed a long time ago), if they asked me anything about ambiguity I’d simply remain silent. Or I would tell them that they firstly have to explain what ambiguity means, before I can tell them how I dealt with it at work.
But things have changed a lot over the years. Behavioral questions prevail in the interviews, and hiring managers try everything to catch you off guard, to ask you some question you haven’t prepared for before the interviews. Hence we have questions about dealing with ambiguity (and prioritization, adaptability, etc)….
Before I show you 5 such questions and suggest how you should answer each one, let me clarify what ambiguity means (just to be sure that we are on the same page). From Google dictionary: The quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness. Let’s have a look at some questions about “inexactness” in the workplace.
Tell us about the last time you faced ambiguity in work. How did you handle the situation?
This is probably the most typical interview question about facing ambiguity, and it is a very open one. You can talk about a variety of things and situations, such as:
- Having to make a decision without possessing all important information. You had to decide but could not assess the possible outcome of various options you had on your table.
- Leading a project with unclear variables and goals, or one that was impacted by many external factors which you had no control over.
- Hearing or receiving some message from your boss, or even from your subordinate, message that wasn’t clear and offered more than one interpretation.
- Any other situation when you had to deal with something inexact, and bore the responsibility.
Now, regardless of the situation you choose to narrate, you should demonstrate the right attitude to ambiguity. It is crucial to:
- Show them that you can make a decision, even when things aren’t entirely clear. Management is about making decisions, and unless you make a move your competitors will get ahead of you.
- Demonstrate that you can deduce things, and find your way around, and do not rely only on information given to you by your superior or client or anyone else.
- Ensure them that you aren’t afraid of a changing environment, and can work in a fast paced team, where things can change from day to day (think agile project management as a good example).
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Tell me about a time when you had to make a decision without all information you needed
You have been probably confronted with this situation many times, whether in work or in personal life. We never know all we need to know–if we knew it, we would never make a mistake. But life is full of mistakes, and we learn from them, and that’s probably how we grow.
Let me show you a few good sample answers to this question:
I faced this situation very often when working as an account executive. We were making cold calls, and I had little information about the prospects–just some basic background information. I had five different versions of a short sales pitch ready, one minute long each, each fitting a different group of people. This depended a lot on their life situation but also emotions and priorities…
Logically I did not have the information about the customer, and had to decide which pitch to use on a call. My strategy was to try to deduce as much as possible from the few initial words of the prospect–whether they were in work, at home, how they felt on a given day. I choose one of the pitches, and when I wasn’t sure, I went with the most successful one statistically. At the end of the day you can’t hesitate on such a call. Saying something is better than not saying anything at all.
I remember a time when I had to decide about a budget for a project that had a lot of unknown variables. It was a unique project, nothing I did before, and I could not use historical data to forecast the expenses. But we needed a budget to be able to start the project. I estimated what I could estimate–it wasn’t much, and came up with the rough number. It was approved by the management and we started the work on the project. We eventually didn’t have enough funds, and had to extend the budget. Needless to say, my superiors weren’t happy about it, but what could we do? I learned my lesson, and I still think it’s better to start with an inaccurate budget than to wait for our competitors to make the first move…
Talk about a situation when you weren’t exactly clear what your superior (or your client) wanted from you, since their message offered more than one interpretation.
Another situation that happens quite often at work. Each workplace is a fascinating mix of different characters, personalities, and intellects. People use all kinds of languages, and do not realize that workers from other departments, or their direct subordinates, may not understand their message correctly, for example because they do not understand the jargon they use, or the message is too complex for them to understand.
You have a few options how to deal with such situation:
- The most logical thing to do is to ask the person in question. Ask them to clarify their message. And repeat your request as many times as necessary, until you know exactly what they want from you. Show the interviewers that you aren’t afraid to humbly admit that you do not understand something, asking for clarification. It’s much better than taking action without knowing whether it really is the thing they wanted you to do.
- In certain cases, you won’t have such an option (for example when you have to make an immediate decision, or take an immediate action). In such a case you should use your deduction. Think about the goal of the project, your role in it, and the most likely thing they want from you. Then you will act accordingly.
Describe a situation when you took a risk.
Ambiguity is always associated with a certain level of risk. You decide to take a certain direction in a project, though not being 100% sure whether it is right. After a week it turns out you made a wrong decision, and have to start from scratch. Time and resources have been wasted. Or, haven’t they been?
Think about it for a moment. What other alternative do you have in such a situation? You can wait, of course, but if you do not have all important information today, who guarantees you’ll have them tomorrow, or in a week?
What’s more, business world is incredibly competitive nowadays. Only the strongest one, and those who aren’t afraid to take risks, will survive and eventually thrive. Because while you are waiting for everything to be clear and every analysis to be done, your competitors are experimenting, taking risks, trying to find the winning combinations…
Regardless of the situation you narrate in an interview, you should ensure the interviewers that you aren’t afraid to take risks. You understand how things work in business, that who doesn’t move doesn’t stays in the same place. They are actually falling down on an imaginary ladder, because their competitors are moving forward.
That’s the attitude they seek in a good job applicant. You should be ready to take risks in ambiguous situations.
Conclusion, other tricky behavioral interview questions
Uncertainty, ambiguity, and pressure belong to the workplace of 21st century, especially when we talk about companies from finance and tech sector. It makes a perfect sense to ask you how you’d deal with such things (or how you handled them in the past), because you will have to deal with them in the workplace.
Ensure the interviewers that you do not panic if things are uncertain. You try to gather more information, to make the most qualified decision. But if you cannot gather them, or have to decide immediately, you are willing to take a risk, and make a move without being exactly sure about the outcome. That’s the attitude they seek in good job applicants…
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Thank you for checking it out, and I wish you best of luck in your difficult interview!