Differences in attitudes to uncertainty. How could it impact intercultural business interactions?

Have you ever wondered how cultural differences impact the day to day life of companies and their employees? Especially in the workplace decisions need to be made and things need to get done on a specific time. Whether it be a transporter being constantly late, or a business partner changing the details of a contract at the last minute –  a number of external factors can come and challenge our initial vision. How to handle this situations? Go with the flow and patiently readjust the plan? Get irritated and take steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again? Cultural background shapes our attitudes to uncertainty, one of the most noticeable differences in a work environment.

Change, innovations and differences

According to Hofstede’s Uncertainty Avoidance Index, two of the most different from each other countries in the world regarding uncertainty and ambiguity are India and Japan. India is known to be an uncertainty accepting country. It usually involves a higher level of tolerance to ambiguity, a tendency to need less rules and formality in processes and procedures. It can therefore be easier (or at least quicker!) to initiate change and/or innovation. Members of such a culture might often show more patience and be a lot more comfortable with unexpected events and last minute change of hearts.

Japan, on another hand, is a typically uncertainty avoiding country. Members of this culture tend to avoid situations where they are uncertain of where their interests are, details must not be left out when negotiating. Changes should be extremely carefully thought through and rules must be in place. It can make processes and procedure seem lengthy to foreigners, especially if they’re members of an uncertainty accepting culture.

Intercultural encounters and potential misunderstandings

Let’s take the example of Vikash, an Indian manager on an assignment in Kyoto. Vikash will be in charge of starting an important project of managing change in the company. Enthusiastically, he starts working on things, but quickly finds out that in Japan things are a lot different! Protocols must be redacted and signed by all involved parties, each party must do their own research, discussion, and evaluation, before agreeing on bringing the decision to the highest board members. He sits in meetings after meetings, present great changes he wants to make, without nothing being decided and acted upon.

What happens in this situation, if parties involved are unaware of their cultural differences? To Vikash, the numbers of rules in place might feel discouraging, unmotivating. Lengthy internal discussions before reaching an agreement might seem to him like distrust or unnecessary intransigence. Now, from the point of view of his Japanese colleagues and partners, Vikash’s tolerance to imperfection and ambiguity may be perceived as amateurism, unprofessionalism, incautiousness.

Intercultural Awareness

An awareness of the differences in attitudes and perception of uncertainty across cultures is necessary to ensure an efficient and respectful communication. Japanese managers might understand and therefore respond better to the attitudes of their Indian peers like Vikash, whom in return might comply with requirements, and avoid ambiguity in their Intercultural interactions.