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How Employees and Organizations Manage Uncertainty: Norms, Implications, and Future Research
Unformatted Document Text:  2 “Our challenge in this new century is a difficult one: to defend our nation against the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen, and the unexpected. That may seem an impossible task. It is not. But to accomplish it, we must put aside comfortable ways of thinking and planning – take risks and try new things – so we can deter and defeat adversaries that have not yet emerged to challenge us.” -Donald H. Rumsfeld The U.S. Secretary of Defense’s exhortation could easily apply to almost any organization in this century. Effectively perceiving, managing and responding to uncertainty present enduring challenges to organizations. They can choose to either ignore or embrace uncertainty. Those who embrace uncertainty see it as desirable, stimulating and valuable. They do not try to artificially drive the ambiguities and contradictions out of the situation. Those who shun uncertainty tend to reduce complexity, chaos, and doubt, often by prematurely structuring ambiguous situations. Organizational practices, procedures, rituals, policies and a host of other activities create a de-facto uncertainty management strategy (Senge, 1990; Stacey, 1992). For instance, overly rigid planning processes suppress uncertainty, straight-jacketing the organization and hinder it from properly responding to quickly changing events (Clampitt & DeKoch, 2001). Yet, appointing a devil’s advocate in meetings can increase uncertainty while inhibiting groupthink. Employees face a similar tussle between certainty and uncertainty. Some scholars argue that humans have a fundamental need for certainty, even if it is based on mythology (Fry, 1987; Maslow, 1943). Yet, others have argued that humans have countervailing needs to escape the “iron grip of predictability and monotony” (Gumpert & Drucker, 2001, p. 27). On a behavioral level, the literature suggests that there are fundamental differences between employees who embrace and suppress uncertainty (Budner, 1962; Kirton, 1981; McPherson, 1983.) Those with less tolerance for uncertainty tend to avoid ambiguous stimuli, rely on authorities for their opinions and act in a dogmatic manner (Bhushan & Amal, 1986; Furnham, 1995). An employee who avoids uncertainty may be hesitant to express a dissenting opinion, looking to the supervisor for specific direction. On the other hand those who embrace uncertainty tend be self-actualized and flexible, preferring objective information (Foxman, 1976). An employee who embraces uncertainty, for instance, would be comfortable critiquing a supervisor’s decision because he or she entertains a different view of the facts. The tension between uncertainty and certainty suggests some important questions. What are the consequences of an organization’s de-facto uncertainty management strategy? What outcomes are associated with employee uncertainty management strategies? What role do organizational communication practices play in managing the conflicts between uncertainty and certainty? These are the fundamental questions addressed in this paper. We begin with a discussion of the Uncertainty Management Matrix (UMM) that provides a conceptual framework for these issues. Next, we discuss the development of an instrument designed to operationalize the concepts in the UMM. Then we describe the database of the 1000 plus employees who have completed the survey. We conclude with an analysis and discussion of our database.

Authors: Williams, M.. and Clampitt, Phillip.
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2
“Our challenge in this new century is a difficult one: to defend our nation against the
unknown, the uncertain, the unseen, and the unexpected. That may seem an impossible
task. It is not. But to accomplish it, we must put aside comfortable ways of thinking and
planning – take risks and try new things – so we can deter and defeat adversaries that
have not yet emerged to challenge us.”
-Donald H. Rumsfeld
The U.S. Secretary of Defense’s exhortation could easily apply to almost any organization in this
century. Effectively perceiving, managing and responding to uncertainty present enduring
challenges to organizations. They can choose to either ignore or embrace uncertainty. Those
who embrace uncertainty see it as desirable, stimulating and valuable. They do not try to
artificially drive the ambiguities and contradictions out of the situation. Those who shun
uncertainty tend to reduce complexity, chaos, and doubt, often by prematurely structuring
ambiguous situations. Organizational practices, procedures, rituals, policies and a host of other
activities create a de-facto uncertainty management strategy (Senge, 1990; Stacey, 1992). For
instance, overly rigid planning processes suppress uncertainty, straight-jacketing the organization
and hinder it from properly responding to quickly changing events (Clampitt & DeKoch, 2001).
Yet, appointing a devil’s advocate in meetings can increase uncertainty while inhibiting
groupthink.

Employees face a similar tussle between certainty and uncertainty. Some scholars argue that
humans have a fundamental need for certainty, even if it is based on mythology (Fry, 1987;
Maslow, 1943). Yet, others have argued that humans have countervailing needs to escape the
“iron grip of predictability and monotony” (Gumpert & Drucker, 2001, p. 27). On a behavioral
level, the literature suggests that there are fundamental differences between employees who
embrace and suppress uncertainty (Budner, 1962; Kirton, 1981; McPherson, 1983.) Those with
less tolerance for uncertainty tend to avoid ambiguous stimuli, rely on authorities for their
opinions and act in a dogmatic manner (Bhushan & Amal, 1986; Furnham, 1995). An employee
who avoids uncertainty may be hesitant to express a dissenting opinion, looking to the supervisor
for specific direction. On the other hand those who embrace uncertainty tend be self-actualized
and flexible, preferring objective information (Foxman, 1976). An employee who embraces
uncertainty, for instance, would be comfortable critiquing a supervisor’s decision because he or
she entertains a different view of the facts.

The tension between uncertainty and certainty suggests some important questions. What are the
consequences of an organization’s de-facto uncertainty management strategy? What outcomes
are associated with employee uncertainty management strategies? What role do organizational
communication practices play in managing the conflicts between uncertainty and certainty?
These are the fundamental questions addressed in this paper. We begin with a discussion of the
Uncertainty Management Matrix (UMM) that provides a conceptual framework for these issues.
Next, we discuss the development of an instrument designed to operationalize the concepts in the
UMM. Then we describe the database of the 1000 plus employees who have completed the
survey. We conclude with an analysis and discussion of our database.


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