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How to Deal With Ambiguity in Interview Questions

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Ambiguity is fast becoming the latest buzzword in hiring, and for good reason. Tolerance for ambiguity is the most important skill needed in any job, according to scientists at the CNSPY organization at Yale University_._ In today’s fast-paced, high-tech world, employers need team leaders who can act decisively in times of uncertainty and chaos. You can rock your job interview by skillfully dealing with ambiguity interview questions intended to test your mettle.

What Is Ambiguity in the Workplace?

An ambiguous situation or problem lends itself to multiple meanings and interpretations. No hard and fast rules, guidelines, instructions or definitions apply. In the workplace, ambiguity can appear in the form of a loose organizational structure, an unclear chain of command, vague job descriptions, inconsistent policies, competing priorities, moving deadlines and disjointed projects. Decisions are sometimes made impulsively or postponed indefinitely.

Negative Aspects of Ambiguity

Ambiguity can lead to misunderstandings, inefficiencies and mistakes. In the absence of factual information, rumors can spread quickly, creating paranoia and fear of the unknown. The quality and quantity of work can suffer due to confusion and disengagement. Morale declines, and the company may experience high turnover, unless a leader steps forward to help teams cope with ambiguity.

Silver Lining of Ambiguity

Ambiguity invites ingenuity, creativity, disruption and innovation in the absence of an obvious solution. Volatile and unforeseeable external forces favor ambiguous organizations that can turn on a dime. Political unrest, elections, tariffs, government regulations and fickle consumer preferences for brands may squash a rigid, highly structured organization that resists change. A looser, decentralized organization can adapt more readily to the blowing winds and shifting sands of an uncertain future.

Dealing With Ambiguity: Interview Questions

Effective leaders appreciate the challenges and opportunities that go hand in hand with ambiguity. Do not talk about ambiguity in negative terms. You will do better with ambiguous interview questions if you are comfortable with the whole notion of ambiguity. Consider how taking risks, exploring new territory, making educated guesses and even trusting a hunch can propel a company forward.

Purpose of Ambiguity Interview Questions

Organizational survival depends on fearless, capable leaders and loyal team members who embrace change and capitalize on opportunities that come along. Interview questions are intended to screen out applicants who panic when the unexpected occurs, such as being asked ambiguous interview questions that have no right or wrong answer. Knowing such questions are coming can help you stay calm and poised throughout the entire interview, even when you’re sitting across from an intimidating hiring manager.

How to Recognize Ambiguity Interview Questions

Ambiguous questions catch you off guard. They may seem weird, confusing or totally irrelevant. For instance, you may be asked to describe the type of animal you would like to be, and why. Don’t waste time trying to figure out the right answer. You are being judged on your ability to think on your feet and come up with a response that is creative, original and logically constructed.

Examples:

  1. What superpower would you most like to possess, and why?
  2. What topping on a pizza is most like you?
  3. Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
  4. What flavor of ice cream is the best?

Tell Us About Yourself

Your very first question in a job interview might be ambiguous. For example, employers commonly start out an interview with the vague directive, “Tell us about yourself.” Inexperienced interviewees might reply by asking, “What would you like to know?” Deftly deal with this ambiguous question by enthusiastically describing your training, related work experience, reasons for applying and what makes you uniquely qualified for the job.

Analyze Ambiguous Questions

Before blurting out the first answer that comes to mind, pause and collect your thoughts. Ask yourself how you can use that question to promote your skills and growth potential. Even seemingly obscure questions can open the door to talking about your natural and acquired abilities. If you are given a convoluted, hypothetical problem and asked how you would resolve it, respond by describing how you have handled similar ambiguous situations in the past.

Expect Situational Interview Questions

Employers sometimes ask situation-based interview questions tied to the duties of the job. For instance, situational interview questions for sales clerks may pose hypothetical situations, such as asking applicants what they would do if the cash registers all stopped working and the boss was at lunch. Hiring managers like to get a sense of each applicant’s critical thinking skills, resourcefulness and approach to ambiguity.

Anticipate Behavioral Interview Questions

In all probability, you will be asked behavioral interview questions that delve into your past pattern of behavior in the workplace. For the most part, previous behavior predicts future behavior. For that reason, hiring managers love to ask lots of questions about how you conducted yourself in the past in various situations.

Behavior-based interview questions have at least three stated or implied parts to the question. You should answer each part of the question by telling a story with a beginning, middle and an end. Each part of the question is important to address.

Example:

  • Describe an ambiguous situation you faced.
  • What actions did you take?
  • What results did you achieve?

Develop a Strategy

Be ready to tackle behavioral interview questions, such as how you deal with ambiguity in life or on the job. Preparing examples ahead of time will help you demonstrate your special skills and core competencies. Focus on your own personal contributions to a project rather than the overall success of the team. Use the first person pronoun “I” to clarify your part in the initiative.

Make a list of ambiguous situations you have conquered despite having no clear direction, limited experience, little supervision, missing information, unreliable data or uncertain resources. Pare your list to a handful of exemplary situations that reflect your ingenuity. Recall the tasks you had to perform, define action steps, and quantify your results. Use those examples to answer interview questions.

Ambiguity in the Tech World

Change happens at breakneck speed, and hesitation causes lost opportunities. Employers prefer workers who can stay abreast of trends and readily adapt to new ways of doing business. Much can be learned from start-ups, high-tech companies, and the adventure capitalists of Silicon Valley who thrive on ambiguity. When applying for a job in a tech industry, education, manufacturing or virtually any company that faces competition, be ready for the types of questions you’re going to be asked concerning ambiguity.

Microsoft Education’s ambiguity interview questions:

  1. Describe a time when you found it difficult to focus and stay productive due to uncontrollable external factors or changes to your job. What actions did you take? What resulted from your actions?
  2. Tell me about a situation where you felt compelled to make a decision in the absence of sufficient data. What did you do? How did it turn out?
  3. Walk me through a time that you chose to keep moving forward in a risky or ambiguous situation. How did you cope? Please describe your results.

Ambiguity Interview Questions and Answers: Examples

Ambiguity interview questions and answers are often tied to leadership style, personality, courage and resilience. Breathe slowly and don’t get rattled. The true intent of the question may be to observe your reactions and learn how well you deal with stress and uncertainty. Speak up if you don’t completely understand what is being asked or implied.

Q. Decision-making in the face of uncertainty can be nerve-wracking. What, if anything, are you doing to increase your tolerance for ambiguity?

A. I am challenging myself to try new approaches, make faster decisions and juggle multiple projects.

Q. Tell me about a situation where you persuaded your team to move forward instead of waiting for more data?

A. While leading a sales and marketing department, I saw an opportunity to launch a great new product before competitors, but our software engineers requested at least four more months to repeat quality assurance tests. I organized a cross-departmental project team that figured out a way to bring the product to the market in one month without compromising safety or quality. I spearheaded an aggressive marketing campaign that increased our quarterly sales volume by 40 percent.

Q. This job has crazy hours. Can you handle that?

A. I am flexible and eager to work. What is a typical workweek?

Q. Thank you for coming in today. We’ll be in touch.

A. What are the next steps in the process? When can I expect a call if I am selected for the next round of interviews? What is the anticipated start date of the position?

Dealing With Ambiguity: Interview Answers for Recent Grads

Q. Describe a time that you had to deal with conflicting and ambiguous data at work or school.

A. My thesis included a meta-analysis of extant literature on eating disorder treatments. My work stalled because I felt overwhelmed by all the conflicting findings and conclusions. I consulted my adviser, narrowed my topic, and learned how to use meta-analysis software. Making these changes allowed me to finish my paper on time and graduate.

Q. Tell me about a time when you were on a team that couldn’t agree on anything.

A. As the newly elected president of student government, I observed that the effectiveness of our organization was being eroded by poor communication and personality conflicts. I organized a leadership retreat that focused on team-building, information-sharing and goal-setting. According to workshop evaluations, 98 percent of student senators surveyed were more committed to putting group interests over self-interests as a result of participating in retreat activities.

Ambiguity Interview Questions and Answers: Scoring

Hiring managers rate interview answers based on evidence of flexibility, acceptance of change, risk-taking and leadership. Don’t be modest in taking credit for projects or changes you spearheaded. When describing the changes you made in an organization, avoid criticizing the work of those who came before you.

Dealing With Ambiguity: Interview Answers to Avoid

Unless you are applying for a company steeped in tradition that ferociously protects the status quo and somehow survives, you will bomb the interview if you are the kind of person who stubbornly resists change. Ambiguity is a fact of life, so don’t talk about eliminating it altogether in the workplace. Avoid giving the impression that you prefer working in highly regulated work setting under the supervision of a strict boss who micromanages.

Seek Clarity in Interviews

Ambiguity interview questions and answers should be clear and succinct. Ask a clarifying question if you’re not sure what the interviewer means by the question. Formulate a response that answers the questions without extraneous detail. Do not ramble on because you are nervous or unsure of yourself.

Example:

  • Could you please restate the question?
  • Are you asking about my training in school or an on-the-job experience?
  • Did I answer your question?

Find Your Niche

Everybody has a different level of tolerance for ambiguity. You can learn to handle ambiguity, take calculated risks and overcome fear of the unknown. On the other hand, you may prefer to work for an established business in which change happens slowly and methodically. Ambiguity interview questions and answers can help you get a sense of a company’s culture and how you would fit in.