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University of Cincinnati – Clermont Belhaven College
Business Division College of Business Administration
4200 Clermont College Drive 1500 Peachtree Street
Batavia, OH 45255 USA Jackson, MS 39202 USA
Phone: (513) 732-5257 Phone: (318) 348-1108
Fax: (513) 732-5304
E-mail: jeff.bauer@uc.edu E-mail: jspencer@belhaven.edu

Track : Organizational Development

Type : Original Paper


The cultural and organizational influences on attitudes toward role ambiguity and role

clarity are evaluated in this paper. Specifically, need for clarity and perceptions of role

ambiguity are analyzed for members of two organizations, one in Germany and the other

in the United States. A global perspective is employed which evaluates the cultural

positioning of respondent's attitudes in diverse settings. The results partially support the

hypothesis that the German respondents would demonstrate a greater need for clarity

than their U.S. counterparts, but are perhaps confounded by between group differences

unrelated to ambiguity. The role ambiguity measures showed no difference in reported

ambiguity levels within the organizations representing the two countries. The possible

effects of technological advances as they relate to role ambiguity are reviewed, along

with the implications of cultural diversity in the workplace. In addition, the evolving and

flatter organizational structures common to organizations and the resulting

communications methodologies are examined. Finally, future research

recommendations that seem to flow from the global management and role ambiguity

literature are outlined for the reader.

Role ambiguity has been described by Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn, Snoek, and Rosenthal

(1964) as the single or multiple roles that confront the role incumbent, which may not be

clearly articulated (communicated) in terms of behaviors (the role activities or

tasks/priorities) or performance levels (the criteria that the role incumbent will be judged

by). Naylor, Pritchard, and Ilgen (1980) state that role ambiguity exists when focal

persons (role incumbents) are uncertain about product-to-evaluation contingencies and

are aware of their own uncertainty about them. Breaugh & Colihan (1994) have further

refined the definition of role ambiguity to be job ambiguity and indicate that job

ambiguity possesses three distinct aspects: work methods, scheduling, and performance


Most research suggests that role ambiguity is indeed negatively correlated with

job satisfaction, job involvement, performance, tension, propensity to leave the job and

job performance variables (Rizzo, House, & Lirtzman 1970; Van Sell, Brief, & Schuler

1981; Fisher & Gitelson 1983; Jackson & Schuler 1985; Singh 1998). Typically, the role

ambiguity and role conflict constructs are discussed together. The present analysis

focuses primarily on role ambiguity, because the literature has shown that role ambiguity

and role conflict have different causes (Keller, 1975) and therefore potentially different

remedies. Sawyer (1992) has even hypothesized that different types of role ambiguity

may have different causes, and Singh & Rhoads (1991) believe that role ambiguity is

more amenable to managerial "intervention", that is implementing programs to diminish

role ambiguity may be less difficult to conduct than interventions for role conflict.

According to Banton (1965), a “role” can be defined as a set of norms or

expectations applied to the incumbent of a particular position by the role incumbent and

the various other role players (role senders) with whom the incumbent must deal to fulfill

the obligations of their position. Kahn et al. (1964) further clarify the role model by

stating that to adequately perform his or her role, a person must know (a) what the

expectations of the role set are (e.g., the rights, duties, and responsibilities), (b) what

activities will fulfill the role responsibilities (means-end knowledge), and (c) what the

consequences of role performance are to self, others, and the organization. According to

Schaubroeck, Ganster, Sime, and Editman (1993), the episodic role-making process is

complicated by poor communication between role senders and role receivers as well as

from turbulence within the task environment, which requires continual modifications in

sent roles. Thus the "role-making" process begins for the role incumbent and the role

senders and is a continual process.

The multidimensional approaches to the study of role ambiguity began with

Bedeian and Armenakis (1981) and have continued with Sawyer (1992) and Singh,

Verbeke, and Rhoads (1996). Based on their findings and the foundation provided by

these works there are four (4) widely accepted dimensions to role ambiguity, which may

be experienced by the role incumbents, and are based on the role incumbents perspective.

The dimensions include:

1) Goal/Expectation/Responsibility Ambiguity - What is expected? What should I be


2) Process Ambiguity - How to get things done. The ways of achieving organizational

3) Priority Ambiguity - When things should be done and in what order.

4) Behavior Ambiguity - How am I expected to act in various situations? What
behaviors will lead to the needed or desired outcomes?

Kahn, et. al. (1964) hypothesized that the presence of three organizational

conditions contributes to an environment of ambiguity: the amount of organizational

complexity, rapid organizational or technological change, and management's philosophy

about intra-company communications. Hofstede (1980) echoes these same concerns

regarding uncertainty in organizations by describing the rationale for his uncertainty

avoidance construct, which he described as "(in)tolerance for ambiguity". According to

Hofstede (1980), "The concept of uncertainty is often linked to the concept of

environment; the "environment" which usually is taken to include everything not under

direct control of the organization is a source of uncertainty for which the organization

tries to compensate."

The type of services that an organization provides may also influence the level of

conflict or role ambiguity. According to Rogers & Molnar (1976), organizations

supplying human services tend to employ larger numbers of specialists than organizations

supplying services with less uncertainty about the appropriate treatment or technique.

This draws one to conclude that professional roles are permitted greater discretion and

are supported by the authority of professional codes of conduct, which would reduce

ambiguity levels, but may increase conflict.

This leads us to the inevitable position of ultimately attempting to determine

whether or not the presence of ambiguity should be considered a "bad" thing. Ambiguity

can be both "good" (resulting in productive stress), also called eustress by Selye (1976)

and "bad" (the lack of stress or too much stress which results in dysfunction), also known

as distress (Selye, 1976). As the concept of stress is considered to be highly individual in

nature, we must attempt to determine the point at which ambiguity causes distress. One

avenue to consider is in evaluating an individual’s need for clarity. Lyons (1971) defines

role clarity as the "subjective feeling of having as much or not as much role relevant

information as the person would like to have."

Culture has been shown to impact organizations and interpersonal

communications, which affect ambiguity levels and tolerance for ambiguity (Hofstede,

1980). The construct of role ambiguity has been shown to have relationships with several

of the cultural variables that Hofstede proposed and measured. Specifically, uncertainty

avoidance may be related to roles and role ambiguity and to a lesser extent, individualism

and power distance. Hofstede (1994) defined uncertainty avoidance as "the degree to

which people in a country prefer structured over unstructured situations."

The present study will rely upon the foundational work of Hofstede in developing

and testing hypotheses with cultural attributes to determine if the participants from

Germany and the United States who were surveyed possess a differing need for clarity

and hold differing perceptions about roles and role ambiguity. The power distance

variable defined by Hofstede (1994) reflects "the degree of inequality among people,

which the population of a country considers as normal". In organizational situations this

often is related to the inherent position power of managers and those in leadership roles.

Employees in high power distance cultures often look to management to solve problems.

In low power distance cultures, like both Germany and the United States, the reduction of

ambiguity is part of the way that supervisors promote subordinate performance.

The selection of Germany as an area to study was influenced by the importance of

the European Economic Community (EC) in global trade and the German's influence

over EC trade issues. According to Peterson et. al. (1995), recent decades have seen a

steady increase in multinational organizations and in the frequency with which

organizations do business far from home. Multinational corporations (MNCs) are

domiciled and foreign direct investment (FDI) occurs in both countries, which will

continue to bring these cultures together within organizational confines. In addition, this

type of comparative study can be used to develop predictions about the ways in which

people and managers from different cultures handle uncertainty. This is supported by

Senkar & Zeira (1992) who state that "The examination of role conflict and role

ambiguity theories in a multinational context can be fruitful for at least two reasons:

First, it may serve to extend the scope and relevance of role theory beyond the

uninational corporation. Second, such examination is likely to increase the theoretical

depth of international management studies, and therefore our knowledge of an

increasingly popular form of organization." An assessment of employee's need for clarity

is crucial to enhance our understanding of the importance or lack of importance of clear

role communications.

A final area for interest is in making distinctions between persons occupying

technical vs. managerial roles. Management roles have historically been viewed as

predominantly boundary spanning in nature (Singh 1998), where technical roles with

greater clarity are less subject to ambiguity, but in some cases having greater conflicting

roles and responsibilities. According to Miles (1976), persons occupying interunit and

interorganizational boundary-spanning roles between differentiated systems may be

expected to experience greater degrees of role conflict than persons linking different

levels of a hierarchy within the same organizational context. On the other hand, persons

occupying internal, buffered roles, especially non-supervisory scientists and engineers,

would not be exposed to conflicting pressures or task ambiguities as persons in linking


The purpose of this paper is to review the global role ambiguity findings available

to date, to compare two similar organizations in two cultures, to compare managerial and

technical staffers on the perceived need for clarity and tolerance for ambiguity, and to

define parameters for continuing the study of role ambiguity and role clarity in both

domestic and international settings. This study while limited in scope is global in nature

and while its generalizability may be limited the consequences of the findings will

hopefully enhance and shape our understanding of the cultural implications of role



Sample and Procedure

Respondents for this study consisted of engineering, information systems, project

management professionals, and support personnel employed by two medium sized

organizations (one in Germany and the other in the United States) that maintain

relationships with governmental agencies and commercial businesses. These

organizations provide a wide range of engineering and management solutions to diverse

customer bases.

The questionnaire was initially pre-tested with a number of management

professionals and undergraduate management students to elicit feedback regarding the

clarity of the instructions and the questions in the instrument. Comments and suggestions

obtained from the pretest served as a basis for fine-tuning items, for evaluating the time

necessary to complete the survey, and the final presentations of the questionnaire.

The respondents from Germany completed the questionnaire in English or

German. The German version of the questionnaire was provided to the German

respondents as a reference to better facilitate comprehension of the questions due to the

nature of the items and precision in the definition of terms to assure context was

maintained. The English version was composed and then translated into German, with

subsequent back-translation and the German version was amended where it was deemed


Fifty questionnaire packages containing the cover letter to the participants, the

survey instruments, and return envelopes were provided to a Human Resources Manager

at each of the organizations to be distributed to the selected respondent pools in the

companies. The Human Resource Manager sent an electronic mail notice to respondents,

explaining to them the purpose of the study and encouraging their participation.

Approximately one week after the initial distribution of the questionnaires, a reminder

was sent to respondents through e-mail by the HR Manager. Of the 50 distributed to the

German organization, 28 were returned and of the 50 distributed to the U.S. organization

30 were returned. None of the questionnaires were determined to be unusable due to

incomplete responses. A total of 58 surveys were included in the final analysis, thus

constituting a usable response rate of approximately 58%.


The instruments used in this study were selected after an extensive review of the

literature on role ambiguity and role clarity. For each of the instruments and questions

selected, operationalized constructs were adopted from the research. In each case

multiple item scales were used to evaluate the constructs. The role ambiguity scale

(known as the Rizzo, House & Lirtzman or RHL scale) developed by Rizzo, et al. (1970)

has been the most widely used (used in 85% of the studies according to Jackson &

Schuler 1985) by researchers studying role stress (role ambiguity, role conflict, and role

overload). The RHL questionnaire consists of 30 items, 15 of which deal with role

ambiguity and 15 with role conflict. According to Schuler, Aldag, and Brief (1977) the

RHL scales have been shown to have sufficient reliability and construct validity to

warrant continued use.

The present study employed 12 of the original role ambiguity questions from the

Rizzo, et. al. (1970) work. The respondents were given five alternatives ranging from

"Never" to "Nearly all of the time" with a Likert type scale. One item was duplicated in

the original study and therefore omitted, and the other two omitted items have been

shown to not adequately measure the intended construct. The reported Cronbach alpha

levels for the modified scale have been reported as ranging from .65 to .82 (See

References). Additional instruments were utilized to evaluate role clarity and need for

clarity. The instruments used to measure these role clarity constructs were developed and

tested by Lyons (1971). The Role Clarity Index (alpha = .70) is composed of four five-

alternative items ranging from "Never" to "Nearly all of the time" and the Need-for-

Clarity Index (alpha = .82) consists of four questions, each again with five-alternatives

ranging from "Not important at all" to "Very important". The instruments employed in

this project are contained in the attached appendices A and B.


The following discussion is used to propose hypotheses for study. Drawing upon

the role ambiguity and role clarity literature and keeping Hofstede's (1980) work in mind,

the following propositions are offered.

Hypothesis # 1 - The role ambiguity levels for the German respondents and the

American respondents will show no difference in reported

ambiguity levels.

Hypothesis # 2 - The role clarity levels for the German respondents and the

American respondents will show no difference in reported role

clarity levels.

Hypothesis # 3a - The need for clarity levels will demonstrate a difference in

perceived need for clarity between the German and U.S.


Hypothesis # 3b - Need for clarity will be greater in Germany than in the United


Hypothesis # 4a - Need for clarity will be greater for the technical/analytical

respondents than for the managerial respondents.

Hypothesis # 4b - The reported role ambiguity levels will be higher for those

respondents in managerial positions than for the respondents in

technical positions.


The tool employed in the data analysis was the Analysis of Variance model or

(ANOVA). This model was chosen to assist in determining whether differences in the

means of the self-reported items exist. The ANOVA model evaluates the differences

within each group and then evaluates the differences between groups. For this

hypotheses enumerated above several groupings were used. First, the German and U.S.

groups were identified, and second the managerial and technical/analytical groups were

identified and evaluated. The ANOVA printouts are attached in the appendices. An

alpha level of .05 is assumed throughout the analysis and presentation of findings.

Hypothesis #1 was affirmed. In evaluating the differences in the mean responses

for questions 1 – 13, which evaluated role ambiguity levels, no significant differences in

reported role ambiguity levels between the German and U.S. respondent pools were


Hypothesis #2 was affirmed. After comparing the mean responses for questions

14, 15, and 16, no statistically significant differences were found between the German

and U.S. groups in their current levels of clarity about their roles within the organization.

Hypothesis #3a was partially supported. The German respondent group reported

greater need for clarity on item twenty, which measured the importance of knowing how

well the role incumbent was performing. The mean values for questions 17, 18, and 19

showed no difference between the German and U.S. groups on self-reported need for

clarity. Hypothesis #3b was weakly supported by the findings addressed above.

Hypothesis #4a received partial support in the responses to question nineteen.

The managerial respondents did report greater need for clarity for that item, however, no

statistically significant difference between the managerial and technical/analytical group

was found for questions 17, 18, and 20.

Hypothesis #4b was partially supported. Weak support was provided by the mean

responses in question twelve. The managerial group did report having to work with

vague directives and orders more often than the technical/analytical group.


This research project affirmed that reported role clarity and role ambiguity levels

are similar in Germany and the U.S. This speaks partially to the globalization of

management models and to the perceptions and training of the professionals surveyed for

this project. Weak and partial support was found to demonstrate that the German

respondents prefer clarity. This finding is somewhat counter to the findings of Hofstede

(1980) who ranked the German higher in uncertainty avoidance (need for clarity) than the

U.S. This begs the following question: have the work environments and situations faced

by role incumbents changed in the past 20 years or are the types of professionals

surveyed in the projects significantly different? In addition, one would expect people in

managerial positions, which are inherently less structured than technically oriented

positions to report higher levels of role ambiguity, again this finding is very weakly

supported by the survey results.


The study is limited in several ways. First, the small number of participants

restricts the generalizability of the findings. Second, further analysis is needed on the

pre-existing differences between the groups with respect to management training and

development activities, which could impact the attitudes, and behaviors of the

participants. Further analysis is also needed to determine the potential moderating effects

of age, tenure, and education levels on need for clarity attitudes and respondent

perceptions of ambiguity.

Other Considerations

Participative Decision Making (PDM) has been shown to be a moderator of job

satisfaction (Witt, 1992). This finding begs several questions: Are there potential

linkages between ambiguity levels and role incumbent participation in the decision-

making processes of the organization? Is PDM a way to moderate role ambiguity? Is it a

form of role clarification and/or negotiation? Clearly, better definitions of role

clarification, role negotiation, and PDM are needed to make these finer distinctions. As

noted by Witt (1992), PDM efforts have been based on the notions that workers want to

participate and that the outcomes of such participation are good for both the organization

and the worker and, at least in some nations, for the society as well. Further work in this

area needs to address these linkages - especially as relates to PDM, job satisfaction, and

role ambiguity.

In addition, we must determine if technological advances such as e-mail,

teleconferencing, Internet and Intranet activities contribute to role ambiguity and/or if

they can assist in the delivery of role clarification. Lim & Teo's (1999) findings support

the notion that rapid technological changes have resulted in significant changes in the

expectations placed on workers today.

One has to wonder what impact technology will have on role ambiguity. Will

opportunities like e-mail, teleconferencing, and information access via company Intranets

or the Internet (on-line) provide employees with information that will help to reduce or

moderate their levels of role ambiguity or will ambiguity only be worse? This is an

important question, since the level of information available today is cited in most stress

studies as being a major contributor to role ambiguity (Sawyer, 1992).

The ever-changing demographics of the workplace have had a profound impact

on organizations and these effects will probably continue in the future (Johnson, 1994).

The research in the area of role stress/ambiguity and cultural diversity must be updated to

reflect this moving target. As role incumbents become more diverse the question

becomes: What will be the impact on role ambiguity? Clearly, one would have to guess

that greater communication and/or understanding problems will occur. As our view of

role ambiguity is remolded by these demographic variables, one has to wonder if current

ambiguity remedies may need to be modified for this new mix of incumbents? Work in

this area has only just begun to take shape.


As reported by Lyons (1971) "The need for clarity is a general need, and the

relationships found here might be applicable to other populations in other situations."

This statement supports the generalizability of the findings presented here and presents us

with challenges for future research, which are detailed below.

To summarize, the stated purpose of this paper was to review the global role

ambiguity findings to date, to compare two similar organizations in two cultures, to

compare managerial and technical staffers on the perceived need for clarity and tolerance

for ambiguity, and to define parameters for continuing the study of role ambiguity and

role clarity, to define the parameters for continuing study, and to explore the nature and

need for clarity in organizations and organizational communications. The review and

discussion has posed some interesting questions that need further research and study.

Future Research

The impact of technology on work roles, role senders, role incumbents, and role

ambiguity needs to be researched further. Many studies have been conducted in the area

of roles, and role stress, but the characteristics and behaviors of the role senders seem to

have gotten lost. We need to begin studying the nature of role senders and their influence

on the role incumbents and the impact of their participation, or lack thereof, on role


The implications of the changing mix of people in organizations must be

investigated further as it relates to roles and role clarity. At present, one can only guess,

based on common-sense notions, that differences in backgrounds can cause

miscommunications and differing expectations. The issue of role ambiguity is significant

and warrants continued study. It has been found to exist in a wide variety of

organizations and remains an on-going problem. Fisher and Gitelson (1983) note that the

consequences of role stress have potentially important cost implications for

organizations. They further note that whereas the costs of turnover and substandard

performance are obvious, the costs of attitudinal difficulties are less direct and just

beginning to be understood.

Role transitions as studied by Black (1988) are another area, which warrants

further study. As roles evolve and change over time within the same organization and

perhaps job classification levels of ambiguity and conflict will rise and fall naturally.

Black (1988) notes that throughout the course of a career, an individual must make

numerous role transitions, domestic transfers, promotions, company reorganizations, and

inter-company job changes. He further argues that individuals can adjust by altering the

new role that they are faced with to better match themselves or by altering their own

attitudes and behaviors to better match the new role expectations. An additional area of

interest would be an evaluation of reported need for clarity and the participant's

personality type. Personality type has been studied in depth, but few if any linkages have

been made between need for clarity or ambiguity tolerance and personality style. This

type of study could illuminate further avenues for managerial intervention in trying to

avoid the detrimental effects of ambiguity.

As organizations continue to adopt self-managed or self-directed work teams,

additional research will be necessary to determine whether or not role ambiguity is

strictly an individual construct or one that can be employed in the study of teams. Would

the introduction of self-directed teams impact reported ambiguity levels? In addition, the

possible moderating effects of working in a team based environment and the removal of

the formal hierarchical structure and reporting lines would likely have an effect on

ambiguity and should be explored.


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