Do you plan thoroughly for plan A, B and C or rather go with the flow? Do you like to follow explicit instructions and procedures or are you comfortable with dealing with matters without much clarity? Are written documents and contracts important and biding for you, or maybe a verbal declaration can be as strong indicator that things will be done a certain way?
Think about what your own preference is on this dimension. Turns out, this preference may be culturally influenced!
What does high and low Uncertainty Avoidance mean?
Uncertainty Avoidance is the extent to which you prefer that the risk is reduced or avoided through planning and guidelines. Culture, your upbringing, where you grew up, were educated and worked all impact your preferences in this dimension. As usual, you can’t say that all people in a given country, region or cultural group have the same preferences, but as with other dimensions, there are certain trends that were confirmed by cross-cultural researchers over the years.
In cultures where the trend is for low uncertainty avoidance you can expect people to be more comfortable with uncertainty, taking risks, lack of thorough plans for each possible scenario. People may act first and then continue getting supporting information, there is a greater degree of comfort with multiple iterations of a presentation or minimal viable products. Countries which typically are classed as low uncertainty avoidance include the US, UK, and also the Nordics.
If we look at the opposite side of the spectrum, the high uncertainty avoidance, we will see communities of people working off explicit instructions, having clear processes and policies in place for multiple possible scenarios, also checking if everything is absolutely correct before releasing a product or a presentation to the public. Many countries in Latin America, Spain, Italy, also Poland, Ukraine, Russia are very close to that end of the scale.
As any dimension, it’s a spectrum, so you’re never one or the other or “put in a box”. The key is to realise where your preference lies and how it’s different (or similar!) to the working preference of your colleagues. This knowledge and awareness can help you find a common language to talk about your challenges, as well as speed up the process of figuring out the best ways of working.
Where the Uncertainty Avoidance matters
As with any cultural values dimension, this one may also affect multiple aspects of your day-to-day international working. Here are some examples.
If you’re managing other colleagues or delegate work to them, coming from a low uncertainty avoidance orientation, you probably just give the people a certain task and don’t necessarily explain the whole reasoning and background behind this particular task. Your approach is that some things are irrelevant to the task you are giving to the colleague and so there’s no need to explain those – a bit of uncertainty is fine and people need to deal with it. Now, if that colleague you’re delegating to has a higher uncertainty avoidance preference, they may come back to you with questions, want you to explicitly state your instructions (even step by step perhaps), explain the background behind the request and maybe also what will happen later with the work they produce.
In this scenario, from the point of view of you as the person giving the task, you may perceive the other colleague as incompetent, disorganised maybe, not having enough knowledge or initiative. But don’t think that as a manager you can just judge this person’s behaviour as such and leave it at that! From that colleague’s perspective, you may seem like an incompetent supervisor, not being able to explicitly give relevant instructions for the tasks you want them to complete.
Can you see how it can easily lead to some annoyance and mutual disapprovals? The awareness of this cultural dimension in this case would be extremely useful to understand both communication styles and adapt accordingly.
A simple change from, for example, ‘Can you please send me a report on 2018 new joiner numbers?’ to ‘Can you please send me a report on 2018 new joiner numbers? I will need the information on the roles they’ve taken, and date of joining. We need this for our meeting tomorrow with the payroll team to discuss their compensation packages’. A little bit more information and detail, not too much extra work, and you might be surprised with the results it will have on your relationship.
When we look at a reverse situation, where a person from high uncertainty avoidance culture delegates a task to someone from a lower uncertainty avoidance culture, similar misunderstandings can easily arise. You may think you’re doing everything right, but the colleague to whom you are giving the task may see your clear and detailed instructions as lack of trust [that they know what they’re doing and will do their task well], micromanagement and lack of flexibility as you don’t allow for any added personal value in the person’s work.
Releasing new product
There might be a reason why so many successful start-ups appear in the US, where the uncertainty avoidance is low and start-ups often work on MVP development, creating multiple iterations based on first customers’ feedbacks. Agile working is exactly the kind of thing cultures with low uncertainty avoidance preference would be comfortable with. You do the minimal working version, check it against customers’ expectations and needs, and then add some additional features, test them again, get feedback, and so on. Continuous improvement and action are the main drivers here.
Now, imagine if a person with this kind of mindset enters a high uncertainty avoidance culture. There, the team might have the need to check all possible scenarios before releasing the product, get customers’ data, have the marketing and sales plans ready before launch, and also back up scenarios in case something goes wrong. Often with that approach it may happen that you end up working on a project for months and months and without proper testing (because you think that you only have one real chance to launch a viable product) these projects don’t end up successful.
When those two orientations clash in one meeting room, one side can perceive the other as inflexible and uptight, while the others may perceive the low uncertainty avoidance folks as unprofessional, disorganised, irresponsible. With those judgements in mind, it’s really hard to find a common ground and language to discuss the approach. Again, it’s crucial to understand your own preference on this and how it’s different to your peers, so that you can have productive conversations about the next steps of your project.
That said, it’s not like this approach is bad and the other is good. It’s never like this, it is basically always beneficial to have representatives of both sides of any dimension in the room, to ensure diversity of thoughts. You need to be able to manage this diversity though! It is useful to have high uncertainty avoidance people in your team as this perspective may be helpful when assessing potential risks of your project and indeed preparing back up plans where required. Colleagues with high uncertainty avoidance preference are an amazing asset when it comes to assessing risks.
How to work with those differences?
As you saw, this dimension again may potentially cause some challenges in the meeting room, if there are multiple perspectives present. Here are some tips on how to narrow the gap in the differences and find some bridges to a productive communication.
If your preference is higher uncertainty avoidance than the person you’re working with:
- Acknowledge the need for action, testing and flexibility
- Offer your take on the possible risks of the project and encourage to explore other solutions
- Avoid trying to put everything in a process, structure or policy, some uncertainty is inevitable
If your preference is lower uncertainty avoidance than the person you’re working with:
- Give explicit and clear instructions when delegating tasks
- Acknowledge the need for procedures and structure, you may appreciate that it is actually very helpful in many situations
- When giving tasks or asking for help provide additional background and set your tasks in a context. This will help the other person understand your needs better and have a feeling of valuable contribution to the team’s work.