Ambiguity affects some people more than it does others. Understanding uncertainty, avoidance behaviors, and the impact of ambiguity in the workplace can help managers create a better work environment for their teams.
In today’s volatile and unstable economy, it is particularly important for business leaders to help their employees cope with that uncertainty – after all, uncertainty can have a direct impact on employee performance, as we’ll see below.
What Is Uncertainty Avoidance?
Uncertainty avoidance refers to how tolerant people are of ambiguity and uncertainty in their environment.
Those who are averse to ambiguity will attempt to avoid ambiguous situations, while those with a higher tolerance will perform more effectively.
How uncertainty affects employees
In the face of uncertainty, some people succumb to fear and become paralyzed.
Others, however, can cope more successfully – and paradoxically, some people even seem to thrive in chaotic environments.
Since everyone is different, it pays to understand how each individual responds to stressful situations, ambiguity, and uncertainty.
Why stability is the worst thing for employees
At first glance, creating a stable work environment may seem like the best way to help employees cope with uncertainty.
However, this may be the worst possible solution – after all, we live in a world that is increasingly defined by rapid change.
From the fast rate of technology adoption to crises such as COVID-19 or economic crashes, the world is in a constant state of flux. And in the coming years, emerging technology such as AI promises to transform the economy in ways we can scarcely imagine.
Those who cannot adapt to such an uncertain world will have a much harder time succeeding.
In short: tolerance of ambiguity is a virtue. Employees who can tolerate uncertainty and volatility will serve their organizations more effectively in the face of disruptive change. Those intolerant of ambiguity, however, may perceive ambiguous situations as a threat and respond unfavorably.
How to create a company culture that tolerates ambiguity
There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for building a corporate culture that is tolerant of uncertain circumstances.
However, certain cultural traits can be useful for building workforce agility and tolerance of ambiguity.
A few include:
- Innovativeness. If employees have little tolerance for change and ambiguity, they will be unlikely to spearhead projects that are uncertain by their very nature – such as digital innovation or new product development.
- Openness to change. Being open to change means being willing to embrace new ideas, new business processes, and new ways of working, among other things. That mindset goes hand-in-hand with a tolerance for ambiguity, the polar opposite of uncertainty avoidance.
- A pro-learning mindset. Many people prefer not to learn new things, yet this is unavoidable in today’s ever-evolving digital workplace. When employees are open to learning new things, they will be more tolerant of uncertainty that comes with, for instance, disruption and digital transformation.
With these cultural aims in mind, HR managers, business leaders, and managers can set about cultivating them by:
- Recruiting those who exhibit and prefer these traits
- Communicating these ideals explicitly to the workforce
- Introducing ambiguity into business practices through, for instance, agile transformation
- Leading by example
In other words, when flexibility and adaptation become core values of the business, the culture will attract those who are more comfortable in fast-changing environments.
Why people react negatively to ambiguity
Change management is the business discipline dedicated to streamlining organizational change initiatives.
Reducing employee resistance is a common theme in this discipline, since employees frequently resist new business change initiatives.
This concept can also offer some insight into why people react negatively to change and uncertainty.
For instance, Edgar Schein, organizational culture expert, has pointed out that resistance to change often stems from fear.
When it comes to organizational change, those fears can include:
- Fear of incompetence
- Fear of inadequacy
- Fear of discipline
By getting to the root of – and addressing – these fears, managers can boost employee confidence, increase employee productivity, and reduce resistance.
Another strategy for reducing fear and resistance is to clearly communicate the reasons for a change project. That transparency reduces ambiguity and, in turn, can help reduce feelings of alienation and instill trust in the workforce.
Uncertainty avoidance is a cultural trait that varies from person to person.
Generally speaking, the more averse people are to uncertainty, the worse they will perform in volatile, uncertain situations.
However, as mentioned, uncertainty is unavoidable, especially in today’s fast-paced economic landscape.
Rather than attempting to build a stable, “certain” work environment, therefore, managers should find ways to increase employees’ tolerance for ambiguity.
The term “uncertainty avoidance” comes from the Hofstede theory of cultural dimensions, a model that describes six dimensions of culture.
Other dimensions cover cultural values such as:
- Collectivism vs. individualism
- Masculinity vs. femininity
- Long-term vs. short-term orientation
- How people view the distribution of power
More information on this theory can be found on sites such as Wikipedia and IGI. Closely related to the theory of uncertainty avoidance is the psychological construct, ambiguity tolerance-intolerance, as covered above.
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