Most people are frustrated with the uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity in the workplace. By learning to navigate (and even embrace) that ambiguity and uncertainty, we can begin to perform at a new level of awesome. The fact is no matter how hard you wish them away, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity are here to stay.

Contextual intelligence (CI) is a skill set that can help employees thrive in uncertainty and ambiguity. It is the ability to apply knowledge to a context different from the one in which it was learned and includes an acute awareness of the variables that influence our environment and the ability to select the most appropriate behavior from among several options.

CI is an integrated model that includes 12 specific capabilities framed by two mental processes. One mental process is three-dimensional thinking, including making decisions based on hindsight, insight and foresight. The other, more central model, is the identity circle. The identity circle is the first step in practicing CI and includes rejecting Newtonian-thinking, reframing synchronicity and re-examining tacit knowledge.

CI Model

1. Reject Newtonian thinking.

In today’s workplace, A plus B does not always equal C. In other words, the modern workplace is not linear, predictable or sequential. We must recognize the non-Newtonian aspects of who we are. That means appreciating that the outcomes of certain actions are completely unpredictable. Much of our frustration at work (and in life) is because things didn’t work out the way we thought they would. That’s not because we are poor planners but because we fail to realize the quantum reality of the world we live in. Contextually intelligent thinkers recognize that chaos and complexity are creative forces that drive us to see things differently and force us to reorganize our perspectives. This, in turn, opens new possibilities that we would never have seen under the assumption that workflow is linear and sequential.

2. Reframe synchronicity.

One of the great ironies of work and life is the coincidences that drive the meaning we make from our experiences. Synchronicity, a term coined by psychologist Carl Jung, is when two unrelated experiences collide to make meaning. An example is when you see a memo from your boss, which reminds you of a recent conversation you had with a colleague, which adds credibility to that conversation and forces you to make meaning of it, even though the two events are completely unrelated.

Unfortunately, most of the time, the meaning we make is predicated on certain assumptions that may not be true. Failing to recognize that synchronicity influences all of our decisions and assumptions is naïve. Therefore, maximizing synchronicity requires spotting our assumptions and the source behind those assumptions.

Reframing synchronicity is a two-step process. Step 1 is identifying the source(s) of our preconceived assumptions by asking, “Why do I think or believe the things I do? Are those beliefs historically accurate and consistently repeated, or am I basing my assumptions on a few coincidental interactions?” Step 2 is to use input from several experiences, which include work-related history and non-work related history as well as anticipated memories (i.e., the future).

3. Re-examine tacit experiences.

Re-examining tacit knowledge is the commitment to explore the “why” of your behaviors so that you can articulate it to another person. All of us have been asked at one time or another, “Why did you do that?” Most of the time the answer is, “I don’t know.” The fact is, much of what we do every day is based on tacit knowledge (aka common sense or wisdom) – that is, knowledge we didn’t read in a book or learn from a class.

You know someone is demonstrating tacit knowledge when you ask them why or how to do something and they say they don’t know or that the only way to learn it is through practice. While that may be partially true, it is possible to accelerate tacit knowledge by focusing on the feelings, emotions and “behind the scenes” information you accessed to make the decision. This kind of reflection leads to a positive change in behaviors over time.

Engaging in the identity circle helps to uproot the malaise many of us experience at work. A huge culprit in this dissatisfaction is the fact that so many of our ideas and leadership models are based on antiquated organizational models that have little or no value in the modern workplace. In fact, what we learned in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s about leadership and organizational development may even be detrimental in today’s context. Using many of the available leadership models is tantamount to trying to navigate the globe using maps written by the flat-earth scientists of the 15th century.

Finding your awesome at work means being willing to reject Newtonian thinking, reframe synchronicity and re-examine how you form intuition. Once you come to terms with these three mindsets, you will have a much clearer perspective of what shapes your identity. With a new vision for who you are, 3D thinking becomes second nature, and not far behind that come the 12 CI capabilities.