Working with Uncertainty

Working with Uncertainty by Dr. Greg Waddell

Photo form Clipart.com

We have been exploring the ways that cultures differ from one another. Understanding these differences and knowing how to work with them is a key skill for any leader working in a cross-cultural environment. In this post, I look at uncertainty avoidance.

Different cultures respond differently to uncertainty. Some cultures prefer a high level of structure to unstructured experiences. We shouldn’t confuse this characteristic, however, with the desire to avoid risk.

Uncertainty is the feeling that the situation is not well-defined or structured. So, not risk but disorder and unpredictability cause a lot of anxiety in people from cultures with a high level of uncertainty avoidance. People from such cultures may be willing to take enormous risks just to reduce the level of ambiguity.

In Argentina, people talk about doing things “a puro hombro”; meaning they just jump into projects without thinking through a strategy. From an organizational perspective, this aspect of the Latin American culture has both a healthy and an unhealthy side.

It is generally not difficult to get people from such cultures to take action. They prefer action over contemplation.

People from cultures that avoid uncertainty also tend to experience higher levels of anxiety and anxious cultures tend to be cultures that are more expressive. People often talk with their hands and it is socially acceptable to raise one’s voice, to show one’s emotions, even to pound the table when making a point.

One of the first things that an American will notice as he observes business executives, talking in the restaurants and walking down the streets, is the waving of arms and the boisterous tone of voice that people use with one another in normal conversation.

Uncertainty intolerance fits beautifully with high power distance; in cultures where people prefer strong leaders and want their leader to make the decisions, it makes sense that they would also find solace from uncertainty by turning decisions over to the leader.

In cultures with low tolerance for uncertainty, people often experience an irresistible drive to resolve problems by latching onto the first solution that presents itself.

Whether the culture enjoys a high degree of tolerance for uncertainty (like the Anglo-American culture) or has a low toleration for ambiguity, either type of culture has its down side.

Americans generally frown about the overuse of rules; they tend to spend too much time on planning and not enough time taking action. They often feel like they have actually accomplished something when in reality they have only talked about it. And they have little respect for authority structures.

If you are an American working in a culture with low tolerance for ambiguity, you need to respect people’s need for structure. Clarifying expectations and specifying work design is essential in such cultures.

What do you think? Have you experienced this dimension of culture in your organizational experience?

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