Conflict and role ambiguity (an overview)

Conflict and role ambiguity (an overview)

In this blog post, we’ll be talking about conflict and role ambiguity at the workplace and in our personal lives. In the case of role ambiguity,  we have to adapt to a role where we don’t know what to do. Our role is unclear and neither do we know what others expect from our behaviour or our contribution to the group. Keep reading to learn more.

How do we define role ambiguity?

We can define role ambiguity as the absence of clearly formulated information on performance expectations, goals, duties, authority, responsibilities, obligations and other working conditions related to role performance and that occurs when employees perceive a lack or absence of clarity in the activities necessary to carry out a correct performance (Rizzo, House & Lirtzman, 1970). 

Likewise, research has shown that in work contexts with high levels of role ambiguity, there is, among other consequences, a reduction in performance. 

The functions, responsibilities or roles that in an organization are attributed to a position of work constitute the set of behaviours and activities that must be adopted by

the person in that position.

Davis and Newstrom (1991) define the role as a pattern of behaviour expected from a

person when developing activities related to others. The role or role reflects the position

of a person in the social system, with all their rights and obligations, their power and their responsibility. 

To be able to interact with each other, people need to somehow anticipate the behaviour of others. The role is played by this function in the social system. 

The activities of managers and workers are guided by their role perceptions, that is, the way they think they should act on their positions and how others will do theirs.

Conflict and role ambiguity (an overview)

Conflict and role ambiguity

When roles are defined as inadequately or substantially unknown, it produces an ambiguity of roles, because people do not feel secure in the way in which they must act in such situations of a special nature. 

For example, employees show serious doubts about what managers or supervisors expect from them, and about how to meet those expectations. They don’t have the training or the experience necessary to satisfy the customers. Furthermore, they do not know how they will be evaluated and their performances rewarded.

When others have different perceptions or expectations of an individual’s role, the individual tends to experience role conflict because it is difficult to satisfy a set of

expectations without rejecting the other, that is, they perceive that they cannot

meet the demands of all the people they must serve. 

For Zeitham, Parasuraman and Berry (1993) this occurs because too many clients need or want to receive the job or service at the same time. It is also very common for companies to have conflicts between the expectations of the company and the expectations of customers. 

A final cause of functional conflicts is an overloaded job as a result of excessive contacts with a large number of clients.

Conflict and role ambiguity has been identified as a negative antecedent in several studies related to work behaviour and performance (Behrman and Perreault 1984; Steers 1977; Steers and Mowday 1981; Fisher and Gitelson 1983; Van

SeU, Brief and Schuler 1981).

It has been empirically demonstrated that related influences with a role such as conflict, overload, and role ambiguity, can have an impact on the behaviour and affective responses of members of an organization.

Furthermore, the researchers have argued that ability, adaptability, and self-esteem can influence those reactions. The effects of role ambiguity and conflict in a company’s sales function have been weaker and less consistent (Brown and Peterson 1993).

A model that proposes various consequences of conflict and role ambiguity is proposed by Bedeian and Armenakis (1981). The Bedeian and Armenakis hypotheses are based on that role conflict and role ambiguity causes an increase in job tension, which negatively affects job satisfaction. 

Conflict alone has many types. One of which is approach/avoidance conflict, similar to role ambiguity in terms of unclear goals and thoughts, due to a conflict.

Conflict and role ambiguity (an overview)

“I don’t know what to do” or the ambiguity of roles of new couples in reconstituted families

If your partner has daughters or sons from a previous relationship, it is very likely that sometimes you do not know very well what your role is before them or how you should act.

It is possible that the tasks you can and cannot do are not clear, or that the limits when establishing norms or imposing discipline are not well defined. 

You may be doing tasks that you think are not your responsibility or, conversely, that there are things you could do and do not do because of lack of confidence or because you are worried about the reaction that one of your parents may have. They are examples of role ambiguity, very typical in today’s reconstituted families.

We call role ambiguity that situation in which the person does not have enough information about how a certain role or role should be performed.

It mainly affects the couples of the father and the mother because there are no rules that guide these people on how they have to act. This situation is not so frequent in traditional reconstituted families, in which the stepmother and stepfather replace a mother or father who has died or are absent and assume their functions. 

But, when the parents are still present in the family structure, such a substitution is not possible and the new couples often do not know how to act.

Excessive involvement of the parents’ couples can lead to the rejection of sons and daughters, and lead to confrontations with the other parent, who may consider that there is an interference in areas that are their responsibility.

Although there are no established rules on the tasks that correspond to the parents’ pairs, it is recommended that they give priority to the affective relationship with the children and remain in the background in tasks related to parenting and education.

 This does not mean, however, that they can never collaborate in any task related to the care of children. Excessive parental zeal and an attempt to prevent any type of participation can also be a source of conflict.

Conflict and role ambiguity (an overview)

How to resolve situations of role ambiguity?

Clearly define with your partner the type of tasks you are going to take on with respect to their sons and daughters.

Come to an agreement with the other household to establish the responsibilities that the new partners of the father or mother will assume.

Seek equality between men and women in the distribution of tasks within the family.

Some examples to guide you

All decisions related to parental authority, such as choosing the school, extracurricular activities, medical decisions, attending school meetings, etc. correspond to the parents.

It also corresponds to fathers and mothers everything related to obligations and rules. 

For example schedules, rules of behaviour (such as not leaving the table until eating or hygiene rules), how sons and daughters should collaborate at home (cleaning their room, shopping or leaving the bathroom tidy), control of duties, deciding whether they can stay overnight at a friend’s house… Enforcing these rules, and therefore imposing rewards or punishments, is the parents’ task.

However, the new couple could do other tasks, such as taking them to or from school and after-school activities, or accompanying them to a birthday, provided that both parents agree and it is understood as a collaboration and not as an obligation.

A summary

In this blog post, we talked about conflict and role ambiguity at the workplace and in our personal lives. In the case of role ambiguity,  we have to adapt to a role where we don’t know what to do. Our role is unclear and neither do we know what others expect from our behaviour or our contribution to the group. 

Thus, we call role ambiguity that situation in which the person does not have enough information about how a certain role or role should be performed.

Research has shown that in work contexts with high levels of role ambiguity, there is, among other consequences, a reduction in performance. To be able to interact with each other, people need to somehow anticipate the behaviour of others. 

If you have any questions or comments, please let us know!

If you’re in the army, or are planning to join it, you can have a look at the Army Master Resilience Training.

Conflict and role ambiguity (an overview)

FAQ about role ambiguity

What is the role of ambiguity?

In the case of role ambiguity,  we have to adapt to a role where we don’t know what to do. Our role is unclear and neither do we know what others expect from our behaviour or our contribution to the group.

What are examples of ambiguity?

An example of ambiguity is an employee who doesn’t know what to do because his manager did not outline a clear schedule for him. Or, a stepmother, for whom it is not quite clear how to handle her new role. 

What is ambiguity in the workplace?

Ambiguity in the workplace is when employees show serious doubts about what managers or supervisors expect from them, and about how to meet those expectations. 

How do you deal with role ambiguity?

To deal with role ambiguity, there has to be defined a clear framework, rules to be set up, decisive decisions to be made, clear and concise instructions to be given.

Further reading

An Analysis of Role Conflict and Role Ambiguity among Air Force Information Management Professionals, by Michele E. Johnson

Ambiguities in Decision-oriented Life Cycle Inventories: The Role of Mental Models and Values (Eco-Efficiency in Industry and Science Book 17), by Frank Werner

Psychological Stress in the Workplace (Psychology Revivals), by Terry A. Beehr  

References

Fiske, S. T. (2001). Social Psychology, Theories of. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 14413–14421. doi:10.1016/b0-08-043076-7/01648-x 

Opp, K.-D. (2001). Norms. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 10714–10720. doi:10.1016/b0-08-043076-7/01936-7 

Scott, J. (2001). Status and Role: Structural Aspects. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 15095–15098. doi:10.1016/b0-08-043076-7/01972-0

Willems, H. (2001). Goffman, Erving (1921–82). International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 6297–6301. doi:10.1016/b0-08-043076-7/00249-7 

Conflict and role ambiguity (an overview)

Nadejda Romanciuc

Nadejda Romanciuc holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and a diploma in Addiction studies. She is part of the Romanian Association of Integrative Psychotherapy as a psychotherapist under supervision. She's practicing online counselling for over two years and is a strong advocate for mental health.