How Does Workplace Ambiguity Make Employees Act?

We all like to think that our values influence our behavior. However, situational factors often have greater influence over how we will act. A recent study (Grant & Rothbard, 2013) found that the degree of workplace ambiguity plays a strong role in influencing and predicting employee behavior.


Two studies, one field study and one laboratory study, confirmed that the level of ambiguity in the workplace influences the extent to which employees will act based on their values. When there is a high degree of ambiguity, meaning expectations, roles, and consequences are unclear, employees were more likely to act based on their values. Specifically, if employees value security, meaning they are concerned about safety and stability, they are less likely to engage in proactive behavior. The authors explain that people who value security may be sensitive to the threats that are present in an ambiguous situation, and may be reluctant to rock the boat.

On the other hand, if employees have pro-social values, meaning they are concerned with protecting others and promoting well-being, ambiguous situations make them more likely to be proactive in solving problems. This is because they view ambiguity as an opportunity to benefit others and fix problems.

When there is a low degree of ambiguity in the workplace, meaning expectations, roles, and consequences are clear, there was no association between employees’ personal values and how proactive they were. In this case, also called a “strong situation,” employees’ behavior is influenced more by the workplace structure and less by individual differences between employees like values or personality.


This study is important because it tells us how to maximize the fit between employees and their jobs. Workplace ambiguity is good for people who value pro-social behavior, but bad for people who value security. Not only is this important to remember when we select or hire employees, but it is also important when we choose how to manage or instruct employees. When dealing with people who value security, it is best to remove ambiguity from the workplace, or at least provide signals that invite proactive behavior by removing fear of threats.

Grant, A.M. & Rothbard, N.P. (2013). When in Doubt, Seize the Day? Security Values, Prosocial Values, and Pro activity Under Ambiguity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(5), 810-819.