A Cultural Insight: Why do we tolerate uncertainty?
By Tony Ragoonanan
As humans, we frequently try to find patterns in randomness. I mean, there must be some explanation for an occurrence, right? Whenever things go wrong, we ask ourselves, could this have been prevented? We don’t always get the answers and the reality is, in some cases, we never will. But, what about the future? Do we know what is coming? Should we go with a gut feeling or should we analyze situations when we actually have the time to make objective decisions?
Uncertainty is a natural part of life and it is something that we all have to deal with on a daily basis. It can be difficult to tolerate uncertainty because it can cause feelings of anxiety or insecurity, but it is also a necessary part of decision-making and problem-solving. When we are faced with uncertainty, we sometimes desperately try to gather as much information as possible, consider different options, and make a plan based on the best available information. Ultimately, navigating uncertainty is about learning to cope with and manage the unknown, and it is an essential skill for all of us as we go through life.
Individuals differ in the way they handle uncertainty, and this has implications when explored from a societal and organizational perspective as well.
The Societal Perspective
Professor Geert Hofstede conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of how values in the workplace are influenced by culture. He defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from others”. Application of this research is used worldwide in both academic and professional management settings.
Hofstede’s model of national culture consists of six dimensions (see the figure below just for reference).
Each dimension has a score by country and scores are relative. In other words, culture can only be used meaningfully when compared.
For the purpose of this article, I will only be focusing on one of the dimensions: Uncertainty Avoidance.
The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control or be ready for future situations or just let them happen?
Countries exhibiting a high uncertainty avoidance score indicate a low tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, and risk-taking. The unknown is minimized through strict rules, regulations, etc. Countries with a low uncertainty avoidance index indicate a high tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, and risk-taking. The unknown is more openly accepted, and there are lax rules, regulations, etc.
Using Japan and the US as an example, here is how they compare:
“At 92 Japan is one of the most uncertainty avoiding countries on earth. This is often attributed to the fact that Japan is constantly threatened by natural disasters from earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons to volcano eruptions. Under these circumstances, Japanese learned to prepare themselves for any uncertain situation.”
“The US scores below average, with a low score of 46, on the Uncertainty Avoidance dimension…..There is a fair degree of acceptance for new ideas, innovative products and a willingness to try something new or different, whether it pertains to technology, business practices or food. Americans tend to be more tolerant of ideas or opinions from anyone and allow the freedom of expression.”
Please feel free to compare countries at this link:
Should we have more rigid structures or laws in specific areas of our society? Maybe to deal with flooding, pollution, crime, or road deaths?
I will leave that for you to ponder, as if it isn’t obvious already.
For a number of years, I have applied these dimensions to organizations as well. Within organizations, we have a bit more control over what changes we can make. As an example, can we decrease the amount of health and safety issues that occur by putting measures in place? Can we also positively impact the factors affecting the performance of employees?
The Organizational Perspective
Over the last couple of years, I have noticed that companies are taking more of a qualitative approach to improving performance in the workplace. Rather than focusing on only results, they are paying attention to the factors that drive it. Even though attention was always given to getting the right people in the right places, a lot more is being done to improve accountability and ensure that employees are adding value to those “places.” I guess companies have been pressure-tested enough by just making bad decisions in the past. But, making better decisions are, after all, how companies will both create the right organizational culture and differentiate themselves in the environment in which they operate.
What should organizations be focusing on?
- Do employees have clarity on what they have to achieve?
- Do they have the knowledge and skills to perform?
- Do employees understand the behaviours that are expected of them in every department?
- Does your team demonstrate the synergy it needs to have?
- Are leaders having the conversations they need to have with their direct reports?
- Are leaders creating the right environment?
These are just some of the questions we need to ask and if these things are not happening, the question is, why not? Are we so comfortable with uncertainty and or do we simply blame it on culture and have the fixed mindset that things cannot change?
We shouldn’t tolerate uncertainty when we have a choice. Change is possible but there is the need to be objective and encourage conversations at every step of the performance management process. Productivity depends on it, employee engagement and accountability depend on it, and achieving the right culture depends on it.
Tony Ragoonanan is the Founder of V-Formation Training & Development. As a Trainer and Performance Management Specialist, he helps individuals, teams, and businesses to align behaviours and goals, create the right organizational culture and maximize capability. Outside of this, it’s all about family, football, and fitness!!
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