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Ambiguity at Work: Friend, Foe, or a Bit of Both?

Two types of on-the-job creativity can be triggered in different ways.

Loliloli via Wikimedia Commons
Kitten: mischief brewing!
Source: Loliloli via Wikimedia Commons

Creative ideas sometimes emerge because someone directly and explicitly asks us to come up with a new idea. It could be we're asked to help solve a pesky problem, or to generate suggestions for how to make the most of a recently discovered opportunity. At other times, creative ideas have a more spontaneous birth –– they emerge impromptu and are freely volunteered, though no one explicitly called for them.

Creativity of the first "directly requested" kind reflects what a researcher, back in 2001, called "responsive creativity." This occurs when people are directly challenged, required, or otherwise externally tasked with coming up with ideas to address the requirements of a situation. For example, an organized focus group or a planned brainstorming session would mostly lead to responsive creativity.

Creativity of the second kind reflects a more "proactive creativity." This could be when suggestions for an innovative process or a new procedure are volunteered, from someone's own internal initiative and observations, without any direct external prompting.

Two kinds of creativity at work

Responsive and proactive creativity can strongly shape our own and our collective welfare, whether it be at home, at play, or at work. But what factors foster and fuel each of them?

Seeking to identify key contributors to proactive and responsive creativity in the workplace, a team of researchers from South Korea recently zeroed in on the interrelations between two factors: the complexity of a person's job, and the extent to which he or she is able to tolerate ambiguity.

Complex jobs are ones that place high demands on our information-processing and decision-making abilities. A complex job situation is one that asks us to make autonomous decisions in a changing dynamic and/or uncertain environment, where there are considerable cognitive challenges to integrate and prioritize our goals, and little opportunity to rely on routine.

Tolerance of ambiguity refers to the ways in which someone perceives and processes information that is "ambiguous" or poorly defined. Ambiguous information is typically open to various interpretations or meanings, it may be novel, complex, or complicated, and may contain incongruent or conflicting features.

We all differ in our tolerance of ambiguity, both from one another and within ourselves across time. Individuals who, on average, have a high tolerance for ambiguity tend to see complex situations as interesting and as providing a welcome challenge that can invite their creative problem-solving efforts. In contrast, people who, on average, have a lower tolerance for ambiguity view those same complex situations as threatening and stressful. Faced with high levels of ambiguity and complexity, individuals low in tolerance for ambiguity might experience feelings of cognitive overload such as feeling mentally overwhelmed.

Putting together these various ideas, the researchers hypothesized that someone high in tolerance of ambiguity could embrace the open-ended challenges and difficulties of their complex job; this, in turn, would allow them to feel psychologically empowered by those challenges and so tend to especially promote proactive creativity. They thought a rather different picture would emerge for someone low in tolerance of ambiguity. For someone low in ambiguity tolerance, the difficulties and challenges of their complex work might lead to feelings of cognitive overload, and so tend to particularly promote responsive creativity.

To visually convey their predictions, I created a simplified picture.

Wilma Koutstaal
What sparks different types of creativity?
Source: Wilma Koutstaal

Testing it out

To test their hypotheses, the research team called upon the help of full-time employees in Sweden and South Korea. Through an executive education program, they identified 143 supervisor-team member dyads, that is, a manager and someone who was on the employee team that that manager supervised. The employees held a variety of industry responsibilities, including management, sales, research and development, and production, with 87 of the dyads from Sweden and 56 from South Korea.

Employee team members completed questionnaires. For example, they answered questions such as, "The job involves solving problems with no obvious correct answer" (assessing job complexity), "I can decide on my own how to go about doing my work" (assessing autonomy –– an important aspect of psychological empowerment), "My job is mentally demanding" (assessing cognitive overload), and "I get very anxious if I am uncertain about the responsibilities of a job" (assessing ambiguity tolerance).

In contrast, the team member's supervisors assessed the team member's proactive creativity (e.g., "This employee makes substantial voluntary and creative contributions in his or her work," and "This employee is a good source of unexpected creative solutions") and their responsive creativity (e.g., "This employee comes up with creative solutions with guidance," and "This employee suggests new ideas and solutions when presented with a specific problem to solve").

The researchers found that, as predicted, higher levels of job complexity were significantly related to reported feelings of both psychological empowerment and cognitive overload. But how these reported feelings related to creative performance differed depending on the employee's responses to ambiguity. For those high in ambiguity tolerance, there was a significant indirect effect of psychological empowerment on proactive creativity. In contrast, for those low in ambiguity tolerance, cognitive overload indirectly significantly predicted responsive creativity. This pattern was true even after taking into account many other differences, such as gender, age, education, type of work, etc.

So, the effects of job complexity on creativity are not the same for everyone. The consequences depend on how someone reacts to their job complexity and their tolerance of ambiguity. People with high ambiguity tolerance can experience a sense of empowerment from the complexity of their work, and this, in turn, is associated with higher levels of proactive (rather than responsive) creativity. People with low ambiguity tolerance can experience the complexity of their work as more cognitively taxing, and this, in turn, is associated with primarily responsive (rather than proactive) creativity.

Some questions for you to think about

  • There are many ways for yarn to become entangled. And — by analogy — not all sources of complexity and unexpected stresses in our work are of the same sort. How might you change your working environment to reduce feelings of cognitive overload? For example, are there ways that you might create more structure to channel what and who demands your attention at any given moment? Are there recurrent "yarn-tangling problems" that might be addressed by taking a quite different approach?
  • In concrete and "real world" terms: Why might feeling hurried and overloaded by one's work responsibilities lead to more responsive rather than proactive creativity?
  • Take a moment to recall a time when you demonstrated proactive creativity –– that is, you voluntarily initiated the discussion of a novel idea, or volunteered a new approach to a problem. How did you feel at that time? Why did you choose to be generous with your ideas?


Sun, Y. S., Antefelt, A., & Choi, J. N. (2017). Dual effects of job complexity on proactive and responsive creativity: Moderating role of employee ambiguity tolerance. Group & Organization Management, 42, 388–418.

Unsworth, K. (2001). Unpacking creativity. Academy of Management Review, 26, 289–297.