The fear of not knowing - Managing uncertainty across cultures

There is no doubt that we are living in uncertain times.  Here in the UK, we are struggling with the complexities of Brexit– the if, the when and the how. The UK is not the only European country experiencing political uncertainty with protests in France, political tensions in Spain and Italy and populism on the rise across Europe. Further afield, the US’s position in the world is changing with its withdrawal from significant international agreements.  China has reported its slowest economic growth in 30 years and Bloomberg reported record levels of global economic uncertainty at the start of the year.

In the world of work, change can seem like the only constant – and with change often comes uncertainty and a fear of the unknown. Organisations are struggling to keep up with rapid advances in technology, changing demographics and increasing customer demands. Feeling uncomfortable or vulnerable in the face of uncertainty is a natural human response yet research has shown that individuals as well as cultural groups demonstrate different attitudes and varying levels of comfort when confronted by uncertainty. Geert Hofstede, an early pioneer of intercultural management, surveyed thousands of people across 70 countries and measured their levels of ‘uncertainty avoidance’.

Uncertainty avoidance is the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these.

Geert Hofstede

Fear of the unknown

When we feel uncomfortable with uncertainty, we are likely to find those situations stressful.  We are also more inclined to put plans and structures in place to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity. Think about individuals you know who like to plan their weekends and holidays well in advance, prefer to arrive early for events than risk being late and tend to stay in their jobs for a long time.  These are indicators of a low level of comfort with uncertainty. At a societal level, cultures with a high uncertainty avoidance tend to have more rules and regulations in place and stricter behavioural norms and expectations.  Those countries where public transport always, always runs on time are usually those with higher levels of uncertainty avoidance. You may remember the ‘scandal’ in Japan last year when a train departed 25 seconds ahead of schedule and prompted a torrent of high-level apologies.

Leaders, whether in business or in politics, are expected to be well-qualified experts.  In simple terms, the boss should always know more than the team to inspire confidence and to help avoid situations of doubt and ambiguity  For example, in France where levels of uncertainty avoidance are said to be higher, it is extremely unlikely that a government minister or CEO of a large organisation would not have a degree from a prestigious university. This is not always the case in the UK or the USA where uncertainty avoidance is typically lower.  Consider Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson to name a few.

Embrace the uncertainty

Conversely, people from cultures with lower levels of uncertainty avoidance are more inclined to take life as it comes or live for the moment. Think about the British pragmatic attitude of ‘muddling through’ or ‘it will be alright on the night’.  It might surprise some people to discover that the British are pretty comfortable with uncertainty; just look at how we are managing the Brexit process.  The lack of a clear roadmap over the last few years and the changes in personnel – since the referendum we have had three different government ministers for Brexit.

Individuals who are comfortable with uncertainty are likely to change job more frequently, be comfortable with a manager less technically experienced than they are and feel relaxed when faced with an absence of long-term planning. They are also more likely to be comfortable with higher levels of debt than people in cultures where there is less comfort with uncertainty.  Look at attitudes to credit card usage in the UK compared to in Germany.

Tuning in to how others relate to uncertainty can be invaluable in understanding how they operate. Here are some tips:

Recommendations for employees of teams less comfortable with uncertainty

  • Where possible avoid last minute changes to schedules for important meetings 
  • Don’t leave preparation to the last minute
  • Be available; try to make sure your team know when and how they can contact you
  • Put in place clear structures and processes; provide more time for testing or detailed instructions than you might normally
  • Demonstrate your credentials and be wary of saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘What do you think?’ too often
  • Manage any change process sensitively and be ready to respond to resistance

Recommendations for managers doing business with clients from high uncertainty cultures

  • Always provide clarity through transparent time lines and detailed project plans
  • Show your credentials as an individual from the start and provide clear examples of how your company has helped similar client organisations with similar challenges.  The uncertainty of working with a new supplier will be reduced by evidence of previous success
  • Endeavour to maintain consistent relationships with designated points-of-contact.  If you need to change your relationship manager make sure you let your client know ahead of time – ideally arrange a meeting where the existing point of contact can introduce the client to their replacement
  • Be ready for the decision-making process to be slower and show patience when asked for clarification – bear in mind that once you are working together, organisations from uncertainty avoidant cultures are less likely to change suppliers
  • Show that you have considered the risks as well as the benefits and have answers ready for the ‘what-if’ type questions

Living and working in uncertain times can generate positive change, engender creative thinking and innovation and encourage alternative perspectives.  But it can also be extremely stressful: for some individuals and cultural groups more than others. Recognising and understanding different attitudes to uncertainty is a key element of cross-cultural sensitivity and will help you to establish and maximise relationships with your global partners.

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