CQ – How are we different? Part Six – Uncertainty Avoidance

In the past few weeks, we have looked at what is culture and what cultural dimensions are. We also looked at different cultural dimensions: individualism versus collectivism, power distance, and cooperative versus competitive cultures. Today, we will discuss how uncertainty avoidance can be an interesting dimension of culture.

Uncertainty Avoidance is the extent to which risk is reduced or avoided through planning and guidelines. A person with Low Uncertainty Avoidance typically acts first and then gets the information. People with this orientation are comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty and prefer to figure things out as they go.

In contrast, a person with High Uncertainty Avoidance appreciates explicit instructions, relies on formal procedures and policies, and is uncomfortable with ambiguity. People with a high uncertainty avoidance orientation will try to eliminate any uncertainty by planning or tradition.

This one can be personality, right? We all know people within our own cultures who may be higher risk takers or want everything clear before they start out. Another way you can see this kind of difference will be in jobs and expectations. “People working in legal and accounting will typically score more toward the High Uncertainty Avoidance side of the graph while individuals in a function like sales or recruitment will often score more toward the Low Uncertainty Avoidance side.” [1]

When you are struggling with a conflict with someone, it’s worth looking at the issue closely and try to discern if it’s culture. Think about the situation in which you are struggling. Might it be an issue of someone being flexible and tolerant of ambiguity versus someone who prefers more planning and certainty? With colleagues, how does this influence your team dynamics?

How about you? Where do you fall on the continuum? Don’t forget – there is nothing better or worse about where you scored. And understanding your preference as compared to your colleagues or students or neighbors can be very helpful.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­|______________|_______________|________________|______________|

Low                                         Uncertainty Avoidance                        High

Look at the comparison of the countries of China, Hungary, and the US, in Uncertainty Avoidance.[2] Does this surprise you? It surprises me! Here, the higher the number, the more the person will want to avoid uncertainty. China’s number is 30, Hungary’s 82, and the US has 46.

Some tips:

With people who have Low Uncertainty Avoidance:

  • Avoid dogmatic statements
  • Invite them to explore solutions

With people who have High Uncertainty Avoidance:

  • Give explicit instructions
  • Rely on formalized procedures and policies

Keep in mind. These are suggestion. If you are working with students, you may want to help them change one direction or another. For example, you may not want them to be dependent on receiving explicit instructions forever. So, you may want to think about ways to move them to have a lower uncertainty avoidance.

If you have ideas or questions or stories about cultures with either low or high uncertainty avoidance, or have an example of a culture clash you wonder about, please write me at lesliepjohnson@lesliepjohnson.com and I will try to address that issue at some point in this blog.


[1] Developing CQ Workshop: Facilitator Manual. (2019)Holt, MI: Cultural Intelligence Center.

[2] Taken from https://www.hofstede-insights.com/product/compare-countries/ where you can put in up to three countries to compare cultural dimensions.

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