Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

The Ambiguity Tolerance Interface: A Modified Social Cognitive Model for Leading under Uncertainty

Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

The Ambiguity Tolerance Interface: A Modified Social Cognitive Model for Leading under Uncertainty

Article excerpt

This paper proposes a modification of McCormick's (2001) self-regulatory leadership confidence model by including an intervening variable referred to as the Ambiguity Tolerance Interface (ATI). After a review of theoretical approaches relevant to developing a framework of leadership at the interface of tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty, we introduce the ambiguity tolerance interface (ATI) and discuss a number of variables we identified as focal constructs that comprise the proposed ATI cluster. These variables include ambiguity tolerance, spirituality, creativity, aesthetic judgment and mindfulness. The paper concludes with a discussion of instruments that can be used to operationalize the variables of interest and the implications of ATI for leadership theory and praxis. Finally, we refocused existing research to address the influence of uncertainty on leaders in the dynamic global environment.


Today's corporate leaders are expected to function effectively in environments characterized by information overload, organizational and environmental complexities, ambiguous tasks and situations and conflicting demands from multiple constituencies. Given these contingencies, coping with ambiguity and managing uncertainty are central leadership competencies that are insufficiently addressed in leadership research, both theoretically and empirically. Stogdill, (1963), in the construction of the Leader Behavior Questionnaire (LBDQ-Form XII), included a 10-item subscale measuring tolerance of uncertainty and defined the construct as the ability to tolerate uncertainty without anxiety or upset. More recently, Ehrlich, Meindl, and Viellieu (1990) reported that generalized beliefs about leadership (i.e., beliefs about the significance of leadership and leaders as causal forces which determine the fate and fortune of organizations) and charisma were positively correlated with tolerance for uncertainty. As organizational structures become less hierarchical and more fluid and amorphous, tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty is likely to emerge as a quality that differentiates effective from ineffective leaders.

Morgan (1997, p.92) argued that organizational intelligence requires, "uses, embraces, and at times creates uncertainty as a resource for new patterns of development." Therefore, leader behaviors critical for survival in contemporary organizations such as innovation, creativity, adaptability, entrepreneurship, flexibility in negotiation and other change-oriented goals are best achieved by people who have a tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty (Dollinger, Saxton, & Golden, 1995; Ghosh, 1994;). In today's organizations, leaders are confronted with information overload, environmental complexities and uncertainties which demand successful mastery of organizational and environment ambiguities and tolerance of such ambiguities on part of leaders if organizations are to survive and thrive.

Definition of Ambiguity

Budner (1962) defined ambiguity as "the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as desirable" (p. 29); conversely, intolerance of ambiguity as "the tendency to perceive (i.e., interpret) ambiguous situations as sources of threat." Ambiguous situations are defined as a lack of sufficient information, and this lack emerges in three contexts: (a) "a completely new situation in which there are no familiar cues," (b) "a complex situation in which there are a great number of cues to be taken into account," and (c) "and a contradictory situation in which different elements or cues suggest different structures--in short, situations characterized by novelty, complexity, or insolubility" (p. 30).

This paper presents theoretically and empirically derived arguments for inserting a new node called the Ambiguity Tolerance Interface (ATI) into social cognitive models of self-regulation (i.e., Bandura, 1997; Latham & Locke, 1991; McCormick, 2001). More specifically, we used McCormick's model of cognitive social theory of leadership confidence as the conceptual foundation for developing the ATI as an intervening variable, which moderates leadership self-efficacy and leadership goals as predictor variables and leadership effectiveness as the criterion variable. …

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