What Is Uncertainty Avoidance? (With Characteristics)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 4 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Uncertainty avoidance is a social phenomenon that affects both society as a whole and businesses on an organisational level. Avoiding uncertainty can be a common instinct, but may not always be the optimal choice for a business. Understanding what uncertainty avoidance is and how to manage it can help you better manage risk and uncertainty. In this article, we answer the question, "What is uncertainty avoidance?", show you how to manage it and explore the primary characteristics of both low and high uncertainty avoidance in societies and groups.

What is uncertainty avoidance?

If you're wondering about the answer to "What is uncertainty avoidance?", it's a common response to uncertainty or the unknown. It's the degree to which people tolerate or cope with uncertainty, whether it's in business, in their personal lives or in society at large. Ambiguity affects everyone differently, so you can use the uncertainty avoidance index (UAI), to measure where your region ranks among others. Lower tolerance for uncertainty may affect how the government and businesses write policy, respond to sudden changes or emergencies or how they support people. Higher tolerance is typically because of established responses or policies.

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How to manage uncertainty avoidance

When you know how to react to sudden changes and fear of the unknown, you can become more attuned to how these things affect you, your personal life or your job. Here are some steps you can follow to help manage uncertainty avoidance:

1. Identify exactly what's making you uncertain

It's important to narrow the cause of your uncertainty to a single factor so you can more effectively handle it. If you're unsure what's directly causing you to be uncertain about something, it's essential to assess the situation carefully. Determine whether you're uncertain about just one or several things. For example, you may be uncertain about your job in the event of an economic downturn. The primary cause of your uncertainty may not be the economic downturn or losing your job, but rather the effect that losing your job might have on your well-being.

Start by using the if-then method. Identify the cause of your uncertainty, then consider "If this happens, then" and identify the likely outcomes. This can help you not only identify the direct cause of your stress and uncertainty but also help you prepare potential solutions or responses if your uncertainty becomes real.

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2. Explore the feelings surrounding your uncertainty

The feelings surrounding uncertainty, like anxiety, distress or anger, can sometimes be detrimental to progress and well-being. For example, if you're continuously uncertain about your position with your employer, you may feel demoralised or even angry about your position. It's important to identify and explore the feelings you experience when you're uncertain, so you can learn to manage them more effectively. Once you understand how uncertainty makes you feel, you can learn to expect those emotions and potentially mitigate them when they occur, allowing you to remain calm in uncertain situations.

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3. Learn to respond to uncertainty anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common responses to uncertainty. Many people feel anxious when they're uncertain about major events or processes in their life, such as the stability of their family, job or safety of their home. It's important to learn to manage the anxiety that can accompany uncertainty so you can build a higher tolerance for it and ultimately respond more effectively to it.

Consider practising anxiety management techniques, like breathing and counting or maintaining good physical health through exercise and diet. How you respond to anxiety often affects the severity of that anxiety, with effective responses helping minimise symptoms, allowing you to remain calmer.

4. Create a plan for future ambiguity

Once you can control your responses to uncertainty and build your tolerance for it, you can start planning for future ambiguity. Consider how you may act or respond in the future when uncertainty threatens to make you feel anxious. You can consider taking time off to recover and rest or practise stress management techniques you can use if you start feeling anxiety. It may also be helpful to communicate with your colleagues about uncertainty and work together to manage it. If you're all uncertain about the future of the company, you can work together to think of solutions.

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5. Remember that uncertainty is normal

One of the most important steps in uncertainty avoidance management is remembering that uncertainty is likely to occur. Since you can't know the future, there are often times when you're uncertain about things. It's beneficial to understand that it's normal to feel uncertain and to become stressed about that uncertainty. Many people may feel the same way so consider asking for help if you need it. Other people may have extensive experience of being anxious in uncertain situations and can advise on how to manage such situations.

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Characteristics of high uncertainty avoidance

People, cultures, societies and businesses that have high uncertainty avoidance typically have similar characteristics, such as:

  • Rules or guidelines: Rules are typically a safeguard against uncertainty, because of the effects of what was once uncertain. For example, a rule against eating in a certain area because it attracts animals may only exist because someone who was uncertain about the effect ate in that area and attracted wildlife.

  • Security: People, organisations and societies with high uncertainty avoidance typically exist in a state of relative security. They take minimal risks and avoid doing anything that may disrupt their routine or potentially create greater uncertainty.

  • Chaotic perspective: Some practitioners of uncertainty avoidance believe life is generally chaotic, where anything can happen at any time. They typically believe that almost everything is uncertain.

  • Emotion and passion: High uncertainty avoidance can sometimes mean using emotions as a method to relieve the pressure of that uncertainty. Some people may be more passionate or emotional or connect their emotional states to the level of uncertainty around them.

  • Conventional ideas: High uncertainty avoidance typically leads societies or organisations to embrace conventional ideas and approaches, leaving less room for innovation and change. These societies can be more traditional or conservative in their beliefs and actions.

  • Focus on loyalty: Where uncertainty avoidance is higher, societies and groups may focus more on the importance of personal or brand loyalty. Loyalty can mean less uncertainty because a person commits to a brand, organisation or another person.

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Low uncertainty avoidance characteristics

Low uncertainty avoidance also has common characteristics. Here are some key characteristics to help you recognise low uncertainty avoidance:

  • Little to no structure: People, businesses or societies with much lower uncertainty avoidance typically have fewer rules and a much less rigid structure. They may prefer to respond to situations as they occur, instead of creating established systems and policies for expected circumstances.

  • More risk-taking: Societies with low uncertainty avoidance may experience more risk-taking behaviour in both individuals and the business world. For example, low uncertainty avoidance may result in many people quitting their jobs and trying to start their own businesses.

  • Lower stress levels: With low uncertainty avoidance, stress levels in individuals and groups may be lower. Higher tolerance for potential uncertainty means people can focus on living and completing projects or work without expecting uncertainty.

  • Societal standards: Some societies with low uncertainty avoidance may have specific standards for behaviour. For example, a culture may have an expectation that everyone remains calm and collected when around other people, regardless of the situation.

  • Unconventional roles: While societies or groups with high uncertainty avoidance focus on very traditional, rigid, convention roles for people, societies or groups with lower uncertainty avoidance may embrace unconventional roles and methods and focus more on innovation and change.

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