Uncertainty Management

  • Michael W. KramerEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_3013-1


Nonprofit Organization Organizational Member Impression Management Information Seek Boundary Spanner 
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Uncertainty management is the process by which individuals create meaning or understanding in situations in which something unpredictable, unusual, unexpected, or out of the ordinary occurs and when there is a need to determine the appropriate meaning.


Employees and volunteers in nonprofit organizations frequently experience uncertainty. They experience uncertainty when something unpredictable, unusual, unexpected, or out of the ordinary occurs. Uncertainty management is the process by which an organization’s members create meanings in situations involving uncertainty and when there is a need to determine what course of action to take in response to the uncertainty. To understand uncertainty management, this entry begins with a brief explanation of the concepts of uncertainty reduction and uncertainty management. Then it focuses primarily on uncertainty management from the perspective of individuals by exploring how organizational members, including volunteers and employees, experience and manage uncertainty about aspects of their work. Then it briefly examines how decision makers in nonprofit organizations experience uncertainty about the environment and their relationships to others.

Uncertainty Reduction and Uncertainty Management

The study of uncertainty as a personal experience began in interpersonal communication research. The seminal study in this area focused on how individuals responded to the uncertainty they experienced when they met someone new. According to the initial theoretical conceptualizations of uncertainty reduction theory (URT), when faced with uncertainty, individuals are motivated to seek information to reduce uncertainty, and then as their uncertainty decreases, their liking increases (Berger and Calabrese 1975). So for example, when an employee of a nonprofit organization meets a new volunteer for the first time, the employee experiences uncertainty about the new volunteer and will be motivated to seek information about that volunteer. Then the employee will like the new volunteer more as uncertainty is reduced by gaining additional information about the volunteer. As research on URT accumulated, a number of adjustments were made to the initial theory when it became apparent that individuals are not always motivated to seek information in the face of uncertainty and that information seeking can actually result in an increase in uncertainty and reductions in liking. Recent, comprehensive summaries of the interpersonal research on uncertainty exist elsewhere.

Given the accumulative evidence regarding URT, research on uncertainty management has focused on the various ways in which individuals may potentially respond to uncertainty. For example, research in health contexts found that patients faced with uncertainty about their health-related conditions did not always seek information. In some instances, patients actually avoided new information that could confirm or disconfirm their diagnosis because reducing their uncertainty about their illness could prevent them from being hopeful and make it impossible to deny their situations (Brashers 2001). This and other research illustrated that people may prefer to maintain their current level of uncertainty, or even increase uncertainty, rather than reduce it. For example, a hospice volunteer may choose not to seek updated information about a patient because maintaining rather than reducing uncertainty about the patient’s prognosis allows the volunteer to remain positive in interactions with the patient and family members.

Various forms of uncertainty management theory (UMT) have contributed to developing an understanding of how individuals manage uncertainty rather than seeking information in order to reduce it. There is evidence that individuals frequently manage their uncertainty by employing various internal cognitive processes without seeking new information (Kramer 2004). For example, a volunteer may deny that the uncertainty exists by thinking “I can figure this procedure out on my own.” Another volunteer may simply tolerate or accept the uncertainty as inevitable by assuming that “no one else knows when we will get a new volunteer coordinator, so why ask?” Alternatively, a volunteer may manage the uncertainty by comparing it to previous experience and think, “since we handled this problem in a particular way at my last place, this is probably how I should handle it here.” Finally, volunteers may imagine the information they will likely receive if they seek information, such as, “I’m sure the volunteer coordinator would tell me to do it this way.” Accordingly, individuals often persist in managing uncertainty without attempting to obtain any new information about the uncertainty in a situation, even though their efforts to manage the uncertainty may be based on inaccurate assumptions or thoughts.

According to UMT, even when an individual is initially motivated to seek information, several factors may prevent them from following through. Research found that an individual’s motivation to pursue new information depends on their awareness and interpretation, of the discrepancy between the amount of uncertainty they are actually experiencing and the amount of uncertainty they are willing to tolerate (Afifi and Weiner 2004). As such, individuals consider the cost and efficacy of seeking information and compare that to the potential benefits. Thus, in many situations, a nonprofit employee may simply accept the level of uncertainty they are experiencing if the employee believes either that it will require too much effort to obtain the necessary information or that they are not likely to find useful information despite their efforts. There are other competing motivations such as impression management or social appropriateness that may also supersede efforts to reduce uncertainty through information gathering (Kramer 2004). For example, experienced volunteers may be embarrassed to ask about something that they think they would be expected to already know or have learned, causing them not to ask out of a fear of appearing incompetent. An employee may feel that asking for certain information should be done privately, so it is inappropriate to request the information in front of the volunteers at a meeting and so fail to seek information.

In sum, when employees and volunteers experience uncertainty as part of their involvement in nonprofit organizations, they are often motivated to manage, rather than reduce, that uncertainty. Unlike initial conceptualizations of URT which suggested that they would always seek new information to directly confront uncertainty, UMT suggests that people are often inclined to manage their uncertainty using internal cognitive processes. If those cognitive processes are unsuccessful in reducing their uncertainty, they still may not seek information due to the perceived costs and benefits of seeking information, impression management concerns, or the social inappropriateness of seeking information. Balancing these various choices and goals makes managing uncertainty a complex problem for organizational members.

Uncertainty at the Individual Level in Nonprofit Organizations

Much of the exploration of how organizational members manage uncertainty has focused on new members whether they are volunteers or employees. The research has helped to identify and categorize different types of uncertainty individual experiences, strategies, and sources for seeking information to reduce uncertainty and important outcomes related to managing uncertainty. These efforts have expanded to include investigations into how more experienced or established organizational members manage uncertainty.

Types of Uncertainty

New employees and volunteers experience various types of uncertainty. In an effort to reduce these to a manageable level, these are categorized into four main types of uncertainty newcomer’s face including task, relational, organizational, and power uncertainty (Kramer (2010). Task uncertainty concerns knowing what one’s job duties and how to complete them. For example, new traveler’s aid volunteers at an airport information desk needed to learn the information about the airport and the proper way to answer questions from airport patrons (McComb 1995). Relational uncertainty addresses developing and maintaining relationships with other organization members, and possibly customers or clients as well. For example, volunteers working with at-risk youths have to develop relationships with each other but also had to determine the appropriate relationship to have with the youth they serve (Haski-Leventhal and Bargal 2008). Organizational uncertainty involves knowing and understanding the organization’s culture and norms. For example, new community choir volunteers needed to understand the rehearsal and performance norms to reduce their anxiety about preparing for their first concert (Kramer 2011). Finally, power or political uncertainty relates to understanding who is in charge and who has real influence in the organization. For example, volunteers in human services nonprofits were unclear which organizational policies and directives the leaders mentioned needed to be followed closely and which could be ignored because there was no real power behind them (McAllum 2013). Taken together, it is clear that nonprofit employees and volunteers experience a great deal of uncertainty about tasks, relationships, the organization, and power within the organization. To manage their uncertainty, they rely on certain information-seeking strategies and a range of communication sources.

Information-Seeking Strategies

Employees and volunteers have a variety of strategies at their disposal when seeking new information to alleviate uncertainty. These strategies include asking overt questions, employing indirect inquiry, resorting to third-party inquiry, observing for specific information, surveying for general information, and testing (Miller and Jablin 1991).

When asking overt questions, an individual makes a direct request for information to the source of uncertainty. For example, an employee or volunteer could ask a supervisor in the nonprofit organization, “how often should I report to you about my progress on this job?” This direct approach should result in the maximum amount of uncertainty reduction, assuming the supervisor does not provide an ambiguous answer, but it also involves the greatest potential for losing face if the supervisor believes this information has been given out previously.

Two somewhat similar strategies are indirect inquiry and disguising conversations. In indirect inquiry, a volunteer might ask at supervisor a non-interrogative question like, “I keep wondering if I should report to you more than once a week.” In disguising conversation, the volunteer only hints at a question. The volunteer might say, “the last place I volunteered, I reported my progress to my supervisor only after I completed a job.” Both of these strategies involve interacting with the source of uncertainty, the supervisor in this example. Both of them allow the volunteer and supervisor to do some impression management because neither demands a response. Of course, because they do not demand a response, it is possible that the volunteer will not receive information to reduce uncertainty.

Two alternatives to interacting with the source of uncertainty involve third-party inquiry or alternative source inquiry. Third-party inquiry involves asking someone other than the source of uncertainty for information. For example, the volunteer could ask another volunteer, “how often do you think should I report to my supervisor about my progress.” Of course, there is the possibility that the third party may provide incorrect information. The advent of technology has made alternate source inquiry an increasingly viable option for obtaining information. Volunteer and employee handbooks are more readily available online, making it possible for a volunteer to search one of these alternative sources instead of interacting with anyone to reduce uncertainty. If the information is available, it may describe the formal practices of the organization, but not the informal norms.

Two other alternative information-seeking strategies do not involve direct interaction with the sources of uncertainty. Observing involves watching the source of uncertainty for information. For example, a volunteer may watch to see if the supervisor responds to text messages while at work to determine the norm for cell phone use. Surveillance involves watching for information without any specific purpose. A volunteer may notice rather accidently that all the volunteers leave about 15 min before they are scheduled to end their shifts and conclude that it represents the norm of the organization. In both of these situations, there is no real cost to seeking the information, but there is a risk that the information gained is incorrect because it represents an exception rather than the norm.

The final strategy, testing, is the least commonly used strategy for obtaining information. Testing involves trying to intentionally break organizational norms in order to gain information. For example, a nonprofit employee might be uncertain about the time allowed for lunch even after observing other employees for a number of weeks. Using a testing strategy, the employee could first take a 45-minute lunch. If no one comments on this, the employee could try a 60-minute lunch. If no one says anything, the employee could try a 70-minute lunch. If that results in negative comments or reprimands, the employee learns that 60 minute for lunch is acceptable, but beyond that it is a problem. Volunteers could use a similar strategy. Of course, the potential consequences for a volunteer using this strategy are limited compared to an employee who could be in trouble for violating the rules of employment.

Together these strategies for information seeking provide a wide variety of methods for gaining information for managing uncertainty. Depending on the importance of gaining accurate or complete information and various competing motives, like impression management and costs, different strategies are more advantageous than other.

Information Sources

In addition to a variety of strategies for seeking information, researchers have identified a variety of sources of information that employees consult. The most common sources are workgroup members including supervisors, peers, and even subordinates for those in supervisory roles as employees or volunteers. These individuals are easy to approach due to their proximity, but there are greater potential costs or impression management concerns if they think that the person should already know the information. In addition to workgroup members, volunteers and employees may consult other organizational members such as a trusted mentor or staff member. Because they are not directly related to the workgroup, there are fewer impression management concerns, but the individuals may not have information that is accurate. The remaining options are all external to the organization, so there may be little concern over asking for information. In some cases, they may provide better information, but they may also be uninformed. They may also consult with individuals associated with the organization such as customers, suppliers, or clients. Family members and friends can also provide information, if, for example, the uncertainty is about an interpersonal conflict between volunteers. Given the multitude of potential sources, the employee or volunteer may choose to consult more than one source, and the choice of those sources may depend on the likelihood of gaining accurate information and the costs involved in being vulnerable by asking.

Outcomes of Uncertainty Management

The research findings for uncertainty management are fairly consistent. In the case of new employees, managing uncertainty by acquiring information is associated with various positive outcomes. For examples, newcomers who reduce their uncertainty are more satisfied, more knowledgeable, and more likely to remain in their organizations (Kramer 2010). Women entering male-dominated occupations who are involved in acquiring information through overt requests, third-party inquiries, and indirect inquiries experience more role clarity (Holder 1996). Volunteers in a community choir who manage their task and relational uncertainty are more satisfied with their participation, identify more with the choir, and are more likely to recruit other choir members and invite people to concerts (Kramer et al. 2013). Overall, then, managing uncertainty is associated with positive outcomes for employees and volunteers.

Uncertainty Management and Experienced Employees

Although the previous sections focus on the uncertainty management of newcomers, it should be apparent that employees and volunteers must manage their uncertainty throughout their time in their organizations. For example, they experience task uncertainty when their duties change, relational uncertainty when there are personnel changes around them, organizational uncertainty when aspects of the organization’s structure or culture change, or political uncertainty when the people in powerful positions change positions or behaviors. Two less obvious areas of uncertainty for experienced organizational members have received particular attention.

Volunteers turnover at an estimated rate of 20–40 % per year. This high turnover rate leads to two special cases of uncertainty for established employees and volunteers. First, because volunteers are not necessarily replaced immediately, if at all, their departure creates uncertainty as the established employees and volunteers consider how this change will affect them. For example, even though they felt understaffed before a volunteer quits, they may be expected to take on additional duties to cover for the individual’s departure. If the person leaving had supervisory roles, it may create opportunities to move up in the organization’s hierarchy, or it may mean adjusting to a new supervisor. These are just some of the uncertainties that the departure of a volunteer or employee create for others.

When replacements are found, those newcomers are also sources of uncertainty for experienced employees and volunteers. They experience uncertainty concerning the newcomers’ backgrounds and skills, the ways which the newcomers’ work habits will influence their own job duties, as well as the type of relationships they will have with the newcomers (Gallagher and Sias 2009). The high turnover rate of volunteers means that experienced employees and volunteers in most nonprofit organization are routinely managing their uncertainty due to the departure of volunteers and then the arrival of new ones taking their positions in their organizations.

Uncertainty at the Group or Organizational Level in Nonprofit Organizations

Whereas the previous discussion has focused the ways that individual employees or volunteers may experience and manage their uncertainty as members of nonprofit organizations, uncertainty is also felt collectively, particularly by decision makers at the group or organizational level. Groups in organizations experience uncertainty concerning the resources available to them and their relationships to other groups they work with interdependently among other uncertainties. Group leaders can assist in managing these uncertainties. Leaders can serve as boundary spanners to other groups or organizations, can serve as representatives of the group who shape and mold how those outside the group view it, can coordinate and negotiate resources with others, and can filter information that may unnecessarily increase group members’ uncertainty or by providing information to reduce their uncertainty (Ancona and Caldwell 1992).

At the organizational level, nonprofits, like for-profit businesses, face an uncertain environment where it can be difficult to accurately access the available resources, as well as the short-term and long-term effects of various decisions. In the same way that group leaders serve as boundary spanners within the organization, organizational leaders assist in managing uncertainty for the organization by serving as boundary spanners to the larger environment. A common way for leaders to manage uncertainty in this larger environment is to develop collaborations with other nonprofits to create access to additional resources and coordinate activities with funding agencies and other nonprofits (Guo and Acar 2005). Uncertainty management at the organizational level involves broader concerns than at the individual level but still involves gathering and understanding information.


Managing uncertainty is a nearly constant concern for employees and volunteers of nonprofits. They routinely experience uncertainty about the roles, their relationships to others including power, their organization, their relationship to other groups within the organization, and their relationship to the environment beyond their organization. Rather than always trying to reduce uncertainty, they attempt to manage their uncertainty to acceptable levels by seeking information through a range of strategies from a variety of sources. New and established employees and volunteers who are able to manage their uncertainty are more likely to be satisfied with their participation in the organization and remain in their positions. As organizational members leave and are replaced by others, established employees and volunteers continue the need to manage their uncertainty as they adjust to a changing organization. Group leaders and organizational leaders must also manage uncertainty between groups within the organization and with other organizations.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OklahomaNormanUSA