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Anxiety Uncertainty Management Theory and the Problem of Cross-cultural Communications in Global Organizations

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Diversity and Workplace Anxiety



This article discusses the problem of communication and cross-cultural communication within global organizations by examining anxiety/uncertainty management theory (AUM). In the age of globalization the workplace is becoming increasingly cross-culturally integrated making understanding and expertise in cross-cultural communication more crucial for executives, business leaders, workplace managers, and standard employees and volunteers. In light of this expanding reality, this article examines anxiety uncertainty management theory as it relates to cross-cultural communications by looking at concepts related to AUM theory including anxiety, uncertainty, mindfulness, and the development of trust. It is suggested that through the understanding of AUM theory, leadership practitioners discover that being consciously aware to learn the ways and practices of members from other cultural backgrounds works to alleviate anxiety and uncertainty, cultivate trust, and foster more effective cross-cultural communication within the ranks of their respective organizations.

Keywords: cross-cultural communication, intercultural communication, globalization, integrated workforce, anxiety uncertainty management theory,

Anxiety Uncertainty Management Theory

This hub discusses the problem of communication and cross-cultural communication within global organizations by examining Anxiety/Uncertainty Management Theory. This endeavor has been undertaken in order that global leadership practitioners might gain a deeper understanding of how different individual and cultural backgrounds represented by members within their respective organizations influence communication behaviors within those organizations. This subject will be examined in this hub by answering the following questions:

1. What is communication? What does it look like? And, what is its general function within organizations?

2. What obstacles impact effective communication within multinational or cross-cultural organizations?

Introduction to Communication and Communication in Cross-cultural Settings

Generally, communication can be defined as all messages disseminated within a context and a situation (Communication, n.d.). More specifically, communication is a process that involves a sender, a receiver and a message whereby a person or group (the sender) attempts to convey information (the message) to another person or group (the receiver) through both verbal and nonverbal cues (Harris, Moran, & Moran, 2004; Klopf, 1991).

Given this general definition of communication, what does communication within organizations compare to or what does it look like? As a process of conveying or transmitting information from one person to another, communication within an organization looks and acts like the nervous system within a human body (Landes, 2001; Coggins, 2010). According to Facey, Wellens, Weeks, Tatro, Koehler, Pouliot, & Bailey (n.d.), the nervous system within the human body “collects and processes information, analyzes it, and generates coordinated output to control complex behaviors.” If at any time, the process of transmitting and analyzing information fails within the nervous system of the human body (i.e. messages of the brain do not reach other parts of the body), then the related parts of the human body will fail to coordinate and the body will malfunction. Similarly, when communication failures occur within an organization, individuals or divisions within the organization will fail to coordinate and the organization (or at least the involved individuals and divisions) will malfunction (Landes). Thus, the general function of communication within organizations is to coordinate without fail activities of member individuals and groups in order to fulfill the vision and objectives of the organization. This general function of communication relates to organizations comprised of members from homogeneous cultures and those comprised of members from varying cultures.

The rest of this article will examine the question: what obstacles impact effective communication within multinational or cross-cultural organizations? The question will be answered by briefly exploring Anxiety/Uncertainty Management Theory and its relevance to cross-cultural communication within global organizations.

Anxiety/Uncertainty Management Theory

The communication endeavor within organizations became more complex with the increase of globalization in the late 20th and early 21st century that brought about a globally interdependent economy and the integration of multi-ethnic and cross-cultural workforces. According to Harris et al (2004) leadership practitioners who worked in intercultural situations “found many challenges working in a foreign environment” including increased difficulty communicating across cultural boundaries due to differences in customs, behavior norms, and values (p. 36). Furthermore, Harris et al. reported that “personnel files of multinational corporations and government agencies were found replete with documentation of intercultural communication misunderstandings [due to] ineffective communication and a misreading of verbal and nonverbal communication factors” (p. 36). At least, some communication problems experienced within organizations working cross-culturally can be explained through the examination of Anxiety/Uncertainty Management Theory.

Anxiety/Uncertainty Management Theory – Origin and Characteristics

According to Stephen, Stephen, and Gudykunst (1999) Anxiety/Uncertainty Management Theory (AUM) was designed to explain effective interpersonal and intergroup communication. More specifically, AUM theory, first postulated by Gudykunst (1988) as an extension of Berger and Calabrese’s (1975) uncertainty reduction theory, assumes that managing anxiety and uncertainty are fundamental processes influencing the effectiveness of communication with others i.e. individuals communicate effectively to the extent that they are able to manage their anxiety and uncertainty by accurately predicting and explaining the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors of others. As suggested by the name, AUM theory breaks down into three concepts or constructs (a) anxiety, (b) uncertainty, and (c) management of anxiety and uncertainty through mindfulness and development of trust.


In the AUM theory, anxiety refers to the feelings of being uneasy, tense, worried, and apprehensive about what might happen (Gudykunst & Kim, 2003). In the context of an organization operating cross-culturally, interactions with strangers from other countries and cultures tend to lead to fear across cultures and anxieties that cause members from different backgrounds to engage in social categorization i.e. designate ingroups and outgroups (Walbott & Scherer, 1986; Greenland & Brown, 1999; Gudykunst & Kim, 2003). Gudykunst (1993) observed that each human being has a maximum and minimum threshold for anxiety and that effective communication with strangers occurs when a person’s anxiety level remains somewhere between their maximum and minimum thresholds. Hubbert, Gudykunst, and Guerrero (1999) found that generally, as a person gets to know a stranger, the anxiety level experienced in interacting with strangers tends to go down.


In the AUM theory, uncertainty refers to the confidence a person has in his or her own ability to predict the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors of others. In the context of an organization or leader operating in an intercultural setting, uncertainty is a cognitive action that influences what a person or group from one particular cultural background thinks about another person or group from another cultural background (Stephen, Stephen, & Gudykunst, 1999). Berger and Calabrese (1975) identified two types of uncertainty (a) predictive uncertainty which refers to the uncertainty people have about predicting others’ attitudes, feelings, values, and behaviors and (b) explanatory uncertainty which refers to the uncertainty people have about explaining others’ attitudes, feelings, and behaviors. As in the case of levels of anxiety, each person experiences maximum and minimum thresholds for uncertainty whereby effective communication with a stranger from another culture tends to occur when a person operates in the middle of those thresholds. Likewise, as a person gets to know and understand a stranger and or their culture, his or her level of uncertainty tends to decrease. How then does a person successfully manage his her levels of anxiety and uncertainty while communicating with strangers in a cross-cultural setting?


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Gudykunst and Kim (2003) argued that to manage anxiety and uncertainty, one must be conscious (or mindful) of his or her communication, but also observed that generally most individuals do not think much about personal behaviors including communication behaviors. In many cases, individuals and groups tend to communicate out of habit according to the underlying norms and values handed down by members of their home culture or group. Samovar and Porter (1988) identified a number of variables (e.g. values and attributes in communication) involved in the communication process whose values and attributes are determined and instilled by culture (Harris, Moran, & Moran, 2004). Through their observations, Gudykunst and Kim saw “encoding and decoding of communication to be an interactive process influenced by conceptual filters, which they categorized into (a) cultural, (b) sociocultural, (c) psychocultural, and (d) environmental factors.” In other words, they saw the communication process as a pattern of behaviors which involves every aspect of a person’s being. Once a person learns the communication process of his or her home culture or group, he or she generally mimics that communication process without conscious effort. Thus, Gudykunst and Kim (2003) as well as Stephen, Stephen, and Gudykunst (1999) posited mindfulness (or the act of being consciously aware) as a pre-requisite for effective communication with a person or group from a different culture.

Concerning the concept of mindfulness in intercultural communication, Langer (1978) argued that when a person first encounters a new situation e.g. the behavior of a person from another culture with dissimilar communication practices, he or she consciously seeks cues to guide their behavior (Stephen et al). Furthermore, Langer (1989) discovered three primary characteristics involved in mindfulness including (a) creating new categories; (b) being open to new information; and (c) awareness of more than one perspective.

As applied to leadership in intercultural settings, effective global leadership means making a conscious effort (or being mindful) to learn and understand the varying cultural backgrounds of the stakeholders involved with a respective organization as well as learning how to manage uncertainty and anxiety experienced by members within the ranks of the organization (Harris, Moran, & Moran, 2004; Gudykunst & Kim, 2003). Beyond mindfulness, Gudykunst & Kim suggest that managing the anxiety and uncertainty that arises when interacting with strangers is closely related with developing trust.

Developing Trust – One Key to Anxiety/Uncertainty Management

According to Govindarajan & Gupta (2001) the key to successful multinational teams is to cultivate a deep sense of trust among the members involved. Trust is a level of confidence among people which rests in mutual goodwill (Rajagopal & Rajagopal, 2006, p. 245) Often trust is compromised due to hindrances in communication exacerbated by geographical, linguistic, and cultural barriers (Govindarajan & Gupta). When trust is damaged, community within the organization as a whole suffers and dealing with any matter, business, social or persona becomes a difficult task (Rajagopal & Rajagopal). Two ways global leadership practitioners can establish overcome heightened anxiety and uncertainty levels within their multi-ethnic members and establish trust are to (a) overcome communication barriers and (b) engage members of the organization in directed conversations with one another.

Build Trust by Overcoming Communication Barriers

First, to stimulate deeper trust leaders in cross-cultural organizations should work to alleviate levels of anxiety and uncertainty by overcoming communication barriers. In order to overcome communication barriers, Govindarajan & Gupta (2001) set forth the following ideas:

1. Invest in language education and cross-cultural training;

2. Agree on norms of behavior.

3. Adopt data-driven decision-making (lessening the need for opinion-based decisions which lend themselves to culturally-biased interpretations).

4. Develop alternatives to enrich debate in order to give everyone involved an opportunity to speak to a given issue.

5. Rotate meeting locations between the headquarters of the various team factions (allowing each group to enjoy a home court advantage from time to time).

6. Rotate and diffuse team leadership to display trust in the abilities of others from the other cultures.

7. And, build social capital by encouraging interpersonal activities to enhance familiarity amongst the members in the group.

Build Trust through Directed Conversations

Secondly, as mentioned in the seventh point listed above, leaders of multinational organizations can alleviate anxiety and uncertainty levels and cultivate trust within their intercultural ranks by engaging in directed conversations about each other’s respective cultures and life journey (Slimbach, 2000). These conversations can occur between executives and managers and their members as individuals or in arranged focus groups through which members of different cultural backgrounds are encouraged to interact and learn about each other’s cultural upbringings and practices.

A Personal Illustration of Mindfulness and Trust in Cambodia

At the time, it seemed like one of the most heart wrenching experiences of my life. I went to build up, not to tear down; to encourage, not to destroy. The year was 2002; I had resided in Cambodia for not yet two years; and barely spoke the national language called Khmer. At the time I was an American Christian worker called to be an organizational advisor to one branch of the Cambodian Friends Church operating in the capital city of Phnom Penh.

One afternoon in June of 2002, I was told by one of the national elders of the congregation that the church was three months behind in rent payments which were supplied to the national pastor by our American mission organization. The elder implied that the pastor of the church skimmed the rent money for his own personal use. Saddened by the news, I did not want to believe the story, but I went to investigate and the landlady confirmed the report. Immediately my heart sank, drowned by the sorrow and disappointment which flooded my soul upon hearing the landlady’s disheartening answer.

The following Saturday morning after the weekly church prayer meeting, I could barely hold my heart from beating out of my chest as I questioned the pastor about the missing rent.

“Lok Kru (Teacher),” I asked with fear and trembling, “have you ever taken any money from the missionaries?”

“Baat (Yes),” the national pastor answered contritely; hanging his head in embarrassment and shame before continuing to describe how a daughter from his first marriage needed money for clothing apparel and school supplies.

Upon receiving the pastor’s private confession, I called my American field superintendent and, over the next week, the two of us (a) met in special sessions with the elders of the local church; (b) searched the Christian Scriptures for a model in church discipline; (c) interviewed the pastor and his wife about the incident; (d) agreed to remove the pastor for an indefinite amount of time; and (e) devised an action plan for repentance and restoration that included him confessing his misdeeds before the congregation the following Sunday morning. The national pastor and his wife objected immediately to the requirement to confess before the congregation believing that it would lead to loss of face and honor before the people.

The following Sunday came and the atmosphere was thick with heavy hearts in anticipation of the coming events of the morning. The national pastor stood by my side with a hardened heart and stated empathically that he would make the confession and then quit, never to return as head of the church again. After the compulsory procession of singing, Scripture reading, and prayers, I stood behind the pulpit, opened the Bible to the First Letter of John, and implored the congregation not to judge the pastor too harshly, but to stand by his side as he walked through the steps of restoration.

When I finished, the national pastor appeared cut to the quick. His hardened heart softened; he stepped forward to confess; and broke down in uncontrollable sorrow and weeping in front of all the people. Afterward, just as the national pastor and his then-current wife feared, one of the Cambodian national elders approached me and wondered aloud whether the pastor could ever stand in front of the congregation again, now that he had humiliated himself so and lost face before the other Cambodian members under his authority.

In the days following the pastor’s confession and removal, questions flooded my mind and heart as to whether we the American advisory staff handled the situation properly according to the Scriptures and in a manner appropriate to the prevailing Cambodian culture. From all subsequent data and conversations with other Cambodians and foreigners outside our organization working in Cambodia, it would seem as if we had committed a major cross-cultural faux pas. And, in fact, asking the Cambodian national pastor to confess would have been a major obstacle to our work had trust not been established through countless hours of learning the language and sitting with the people to ask questions and get to know the Khmer (Cambodian) culture. Moreover, as mentioned above, we Americans did not act alone, but acted mindfully by including Cambodian national leaders from the congregation in the conversation of what should be done with the senior pastor. Interestingly, in a conversation with Cambodian nationals in 2010, it was confirmed that had the pastor not confessed and been removed from his position, the American missionaries would have lost the trust of the other Cambodians involved in the church because we would have ignored biblical principles which we had taught them.

As applied to communication in organizations in cross-cultural settings, the lessons taught in Anxiety/Uncertainty Management Theory guide global leadership practitioners to recognize and overcome barriers to intercultural communication within their respective organizations. Furthermore through the understanding of AUM theory, leadership practitioners discover that being consciously aware to learn the ways and practices of members from other cultural backgrounds works to alleviate anxiety and uncertainty, cultivate trust, and foster more effective cross-cultural communication within the ranks of their respective organizations.


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ecoggins (author) from Corona, California on January 06, 2011:

Tina V. Thank you for your input and encouraging comments. You are right. In an age where cultures are merging all over the world, it is imperative that we understand the barriers to communication with others who did not grow up in the same place as we did.

TINA V on January 06, 2011:

This is an informative hub. Cultural differences can really affect communication. It can lead to problems that we least expect. This theory is useful to help people understand and improve in their relationships.

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