Tolerance for ambiguity can be defined as the degree to which an individual is comfortable with uncertainty, unpredictability, conflicting directions, and multiple demands. In essence, tolerance for ambiguity is manifest in a person’s ability to operate effectively in an uncertain environment. The extent of ambiguity may vary greatly and is generally linked to the underlying cause for uncertainty. Some people may be born with a natural predilection toward tolerance for ambiguity, while for others it develops over time through education and experience. And there are some who strive daily to simply eliminate ambiguity in their lives. However, ambiguity exists in different degrees and for varying periods of time within corporations and organizations around the world. It may arise when questions are posed that have no single answer or that generate a number of new questions. Perhaps the initial question was ambiguous. Occasionally there is ethical uncertainty, and the line between right and wrong becomes blurred. How one deals with uncertainty and the stress of an ambiguous situation is an important consideration in the world of work.
Tolerance for ambiguity was first recognized as a personality variable in the early 1960s. Since then, psychologists, sociologists, project managers, human resource development professionals, software developers, business consultants, educators, and others have examined tolerance for ambiguity to better understand how people deal with uncertainty in their lives, whether in family situations, in the workplace, or in social settings. In general, people who have a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity tend to be able to see and appreciate multiple perspectives and thus are not so quick to rush to judgment. They ask more questions and look at more possibilities when trying to solve complex problems. Thus, tolerance for ambiguity often indicates a person’s ability to be creative and to think critically.
The American Council on Education cites the ability to function effectively in an ambiguous, complex, and rapidly changing environment as a critical skill corporate recruiters look for in a pool of applicants. The job interview might include questions to determine whether the applicant simply copes with uncertainty, tolerates ambiguity, or embraces it as an exciting element of the world in which we live and work. For example, a job applicant may be asked to cite an instance in which he or she had to deal with an unexpected event or abrupt structural change at work. Where one’s propensity for dealing with uncertainty falls along the continuum may be seen as an indicator of other attributes, such as a tendency toward flexible thinking, a preference for swift and independent decision making, or a positive attitude toward risk taking.
Business leaders highlight some of the talents they look for that go beyond the technical expertise needed in any particular field. These include excellent communication skills, successful teamwork, flexible and creative thinking, ease working with people of diverse backgrounds, understanding of implications associated with the global nature of business today, high ethical standards, and ability to deal with ambiguity in the work environment. One can readily see the connection among several elements in the forgoing list. For example, it is difficult to truly understand people from another culture if communication efforts are hampered by impatience derived from low tolerance for ambiguity. This in turn influences open-mindedness and the possibility of discovering creative solutions to complex issues.
Sources of ambiguity in the workplace vary. In the current milieu of international corporations and global organizations, it is likely that there will be multiple cultural perspectives to be considered. Studies indicate general cultural traits (sometimes referred to as sociotypes) within large ethnic communities. Eastern, African, and Iberio-American cultures tend to be more cooperative, while the Western orientation is more competitive. Similarly, the Western communication style is generally more direct than that of other cultures. In some instances, what is acceptable in one culture might be entirely inappropriate in another. Thus, a high level of tolerance for ambiguity is advantageous in multicultural settings.
At times, a business may experience rapid change that borders on the chaotic. Indeed, slow and steady improvement as a mechanism for organizational change is uncommon. Agility is important in today’s fluid business climate as well as in the public sector. In times of rapid change, the way one deals with uncertainty becomes critical to individual success, thus influencing the success of the organization. In the frenzy associated with change and upheaval, those who are able to navigate the ambiguity are often seen as management material and have advancement potential within the organization.
Another source of uncertainty in the workplace may be a lack of clarity in expectations and in the long-term goals of the organization. This is usually due to ineffective management and may be a contributing factor to the type of chaotic change just described. Senior officers of the organization might be sending mixed signals to employees, or there may be dissension among those in upper management. When faced with a high degree of uncertainty, individuals can simply try to cope with the situation, or they can try to maintain a low profile to “stay out of the way” of management ambiguity. A person who is adept at tolerating ambiguity and can still maintain a high level of productivity in the unstable climate is likely to continue to be an effective contributor in the work setting. Although they are probably few in number, there are those who fully embrace ambiguity, who see it as an opportunity for personal development and creative organizational change.
The world of work continues to grow increasingly complex. In businesses and organizations, those who are called upon to solve complicated problems and make good decisions must rely on more than factual knowledge. Dealing with uncertainty may evoke feelings of ambivalence or, in the extreme, paralysis and helplessness. Moving too quickly to decisive action, however, can lead to disaster. Employees and senior officers alike need to recognize uncertainty as a source of creative energy and therefore encourage a tolerance for ambiguity.
- American Council on Education. 1996. Higher Education and Work Readiness: The View from the Corporation. Washington, DC: Task Force on High Performance Work and Workers: The Academic Connection.
- Budner, S. 1962. “Intolerance of Ambiguity as a Personality Variable.” Journal of Personality 30:29-50.
- Huber, N. S. 2003. “An Experiential Leadership Approach for Teaching Tolerance for Ambiguity.” Journal of Education for Business 79:52-55.
- Oblinger, D. G. and Verville, A.-L. 1998. What Business Wants from Higher Education. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.
- Rosen, R. 2000. Global Literacies: Lessons on Business Leadership and National Cultures. New York: Simon & Schuster.