Dr. Hofstede's research has provided a valuable framework based on research for understanding cultural differences and their impact on economic, political, and social dynamics. By learning about different cultures and developing intercultural management skills, we can build stronger relationships and work more effectively in an increasingly interconnected world. Now it's time for the dimension called uncertainty avoidance in Dr. Hofstede's national culture model. All human beings must face that we don't know what will happen tomorrow: the future is uncertain, but we must live with it anyway.
Extreme ambiguity creates unbearable anxiety. Every culture has developed ways to alleviate this anxiety. These forms belong to the domains of technology, law, and religion. Technology, from the most primitive to the most advanced, helps people evade the uncertainty caused by nature.
Laws and rules try to prevent uncertainty in the behavior of others. Religion is a way of relating to the transcendent forces that are supposed to control people's futures. It helps followers to accept uncertainties that one cannot defend against, and some religions offer the ultimate certainty of life after death or victory over opponents.
To better understand this dimension in breadth and depth, it is pertinent to provide context to what Hofstede referred to as anxiety, a term taken from psychology and psychiatry that expresses a diffuse unease or concern for what may happen. It should not be confused with fear, which has an object. We are afraid of something specific, but anxiety has no focus object. The idea that anxiety levels can vary from country to country dates back to French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who, in 1897, had already published a study on the phenomenon of suicide. Anxious cultures tend to be expressive cultures. We can find them where people talk with their hands, and it is socially acceptable to raise their voices, show emotions, and hit the table. Japan may seem like an exception in this regard; like other Asians, the Japanese generally behave in a non-emotional manner in the eyes of the West. In Japan, however, and to some extent also in Korea and Taiwan, there is the possibility of getting drunk with colleagues after work hours. During these gatherings, men release their repressed aggression, even towards their superiors, but matters continue as usual the next day. These episodes of alcohol consumption represent one of the main institutionalized places and moments for releasing anxiety.
Now, let's move on to the findings that Hofstede had in this dimension.
Here, we must say that the differences between countries regarding evasion of uncertainty were initially discovered as a byproduct of power distance.
As Hofstede explains, it all started with a question about work stress: how often do you feel nervous or tense at work?
Geert was struck by the regularity of the response patterns to this question from one country to another. For example, British employees were always less nervous than Germans, whether managers, engineers, secretaries, or unskilled factory workers. When analyzing the responses, he found that the average scores of each country were strongly correlated with the points we will review below.
By closely examining all the questions related to this dimension, Hofstede found that the average scores of each country were strongly correlated in the following three points:
Work stress, following the previously described question.
Agreement with the statement, "Company rules should not be broken, even when the employee thinks it is best for the company." This question was labeled norm orientation.
Percentage of employees expressing their intention to stay with the company for a long-term career. The question was, "How long do you think you will continue working for IBM?"
Based on the findings from the data analysis, uncertainty avoidance is the extent to which members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations. This feeling is expressed, among other manifestations, through nervous stress and the need for predictability: the need for written and unwritten rules.
A comparison between thirty-three countries on the uncertainty avoidance index with national norms for the Five-Factor Personality Test showed that respondents scored higher on neuroticism and lower on agreeableness in cultures that avoid uncertainty. Neuroticism (the opposite of emotional stability) combines self-rated personality facets: anxiety, hostility, depression, insecurity, impulsiveness, and vulnerability. Agreeableness combines trust, straightforwardness, altruism, compliance, modesty, and tender-mindedness.
These correlations explain why people from cultures with a strong uncertainty avoidance may appear busy, restless, emotional, aggressive, or suspicious and why people from countries with a weak uncertainty avoidance may give the impression of being boring, calm, carefree, lazy, controlled, or lethargic. These impressions are in the eye of the beholder: they show the difference in emotional level in the observer's culture. Evasion of uncertainty should not be confused with evasion of risk. Uncertainty is to risk, as anxiety is to fear. Fear and danger focus on something specific: an object in the case of fear and an event in the case of risk. Risk is often expressed as a percentage of the probability of a particular event occurring. Anxiety and uncertainty, on the other hand, are diffuse feelings. As argued earlier, anxiety has no object. We cannot measure uncertainty by probability. It is a situation where anything can happen, and we have no idea what. As uncertainty is expressed as risk, it can become a source of fear but can also be accepted as routine, like the risks of driving a car or playing a sport.
Instead of reducing risk, evasion of uncertainty leads to a reduction in ambiguity. Cultures that evade uncertainty seek to avoid ambiguous situations; they look for structure in their organizations, institutions, and relationships that make events interpretable and predictable. Paradoxically, they are often prepared to engage in risky behavior to reduce ambiguity, such as starting a fight with a potential opponent instead of sitting and waiting.
In this dimension, emotions play a central role. The feeling of solid evasion of uncertainty can be summed up in the creed: "What is different is dangerous." On the other hand, the sense of weak uncertainty avoidance is: "What is different is curious."
Below, we will give examples of how the family reflects this dimension. In societies with low evasion of uncertainty, family dynamics have the following characteristics:
Aggression and emotions should not be shown.
Family life is relaxed.
What is different is curious.
In personality tests, scores are higher in agreeableness.
Comfort in ambiguous situations and with unknown risks.
In societies with high evasion of uncertainty, family dynamics have the following characteristics:
Aggression and emotions can be vented at appropriate times and places.
Family life is stressful.
What is different is dangerous.
In personality tests, scores are higher in neuroticism.
Acceptance of family risks; fear of ambiguous situations and unknown threats.
And what about evasion of uncertainty in the workplace?
As we explained earlier, this dimension has three essential factors: stress at work, rule orientation or compliance, and intention to stay in the organization.
Delving deeper into the second factor is essential because of its connection to corporate policies and procedures.
Laws, norms, and regulations are ways society tries to prevent uncertainties in people's behavior. Cultures that avoid uncertainty have more formal laws and informal rules that control the rights and duties of employers and employees.
They also have more internal regulations that control the work process, although in this case, the level of power distance also plays an important role.
When power distances are large, the exercise of discretionary power by superiors replaces, to some extent, the need for internal rules.
The emotional need for rules in a society with a substantial evasion of uncertainty is strong. Since childhood, people born and raised in this culture have been programmed to feel comfortable in structured environments.
The emotional need for laws and regulations in this type of society can lead to rule-oriented behaviors that are purely ceremonial, inconsistent, or dysfunctional. Their importance is satisfying people's emotional need for a formal structure, even if what happens is less important.
I was born and raised in a high-need-for-certainty culture. Currently, I can work as an organizational development professional in multicultural environments. Appreciating the differences between high and low uncertainty avoidance cultures has allowed me to connect cultural transformation processes in organizations and institutions with the individual aspect of the personality of leaders and their work teams. The combinations can be multiple; for example, a leader from a low uncertainty avoidance culture leads an intercultural team in a high uncertainty avoidance country comprised of members from both cultures. This type of configuration is an example of the complexity of managing emotions in the workplace.
Next, I will share three recommendations for working effectively and efficiently with high uncertainty avoidance cultures such as Greece, Guatemala, Portugal, Uruguay, Malta, Spain, South Korea, Iraq, and Mexico:
Understand and respect cultural norms and rules: In cultures with high uncertainty avoidance, standards and regulations tend to be stricter and more formal. It is essential to familiarize yourself with and follow these norms to avoid conflicts or misunderstandings. Respect hierarchy and authority, and avoid openly questioning or challenging established rules.
Communicate clearly and precisely: Due to the aversion to ambiguity in these cultures, expressing yourself clearly and specifically is essential. Avoid figurative or indirect language; be specific in your instructions and requirements. Use concrete examples and provide detailed explanations to ensure that everyone fully understands what is expected of them.
Be aware of emotions and show empathy: Cultures with high uncertainty avoidance tend to have higher emotional expression. Be sensitive to others' feelings and empathize with their concerns and anxieties. This approach will allow you to build stronger, more effective relationships and facilitate collaboration and teamwork.
Here are three recommendations for working effectively and efficiently with cultures with low uncertainty avoidance, such as Singapore, Jamaica, Denmark, Hong Kong, Sweden, China, Great Britain, India, and the USA:
Encourage creativity and innovation: In cultures with low uncertainty avoidance, people are often more open to new ideas and willing to take risks. Take advantage of this mindset by fostering a work environment that promotes creativity and innovation. Encourage your team to share ideas, try different approaches, and provide support and recognition to those who dare to take calculated risks.
Be flexible and adaptable: In these cultures, the aversion to uncertainty is lower, which means that people are more willing to accept changes and adapt to new situations. Take advantage of this flexibility and be receptive to changes and adjustments. Demonstrate an open and positive attitude towards changes that arise in the work and encourage adaptability in your team.
Promote open and direct collaboration: In cultures with low uncertainty avoidance, people tend to be more natural and genuine in their touch. Take advantage of this by promoting open and direct communication in your team. Encourage your members to express their opinions and concerns clearly and constructively and foster a working environment where people feel comfortable sharing perspectives.
Working effectively and efficiently with high and low uncertainty avoidance cultures means that it is vital to understand and respect cultural norms, communicate clearly and precisely, and show empathy towards others' emotions. These recommendations will help you establish successful relationships and collaborations in multicultural environments.