Role Ambiguity

Role ambiguity, or the extent to which one’s work responsibilities and degree of authority are unclear, is one of the most widely studied variables in the field of occupational stress. Because it represents a subjective judgment of one’s work situation, role ambiguity is typically assessed using employees’ self-reports. Some researchers refer to role ambiguity by its polar opposite, role clarity.

Employees who experience role ambiguity feel uncertainty about which behaviors are and are not appropriate. They may wonder, for example, whether they are engaging in inappropriate work behaviors. On the other hand, they may wonder whether they are failing to engage in appropriate work behaviors. Most employees find both of these situations distressful.

Much of the research on occupational stress has focused on identifying work stressors; role ambiguity and a related variable, called role conflict (i.e., the extent to which an employee faces incompatible work demands), are the most commonly studied stressors. A stressor is any aspect of the work environment that requires an employee to adapt and has the potential to cause poor health. In addition to role ambiguity, other stressors include having a heavy workload or being mistreated by a supervisor. The negative health consequences produced by a stressor, such as depression, anxiety, or physical symptoms, are called strains.

Role theory provides the theoretical basis for the study of role ambiguity. According to role theory, each employee has a unique set of rights and responsibilities within the organization. Formal roles are the set of official behaviors that employees perform as part of their job description and are maintained by organizational policies. The formal role of a teacher, for example, includes grading tests and assigning homework. In addition, informal roles develop as part of the everyday social dynamic of the organization. Although these roles are not enforced by written policies, they are maintained by informal social interactions. For teachers, for example, informal roles might include planning and organizing staff parties. Role ambiguity is generally operationalized as uncertainty concerning formal roles.

Causes of Role Ambiguity

According to leadership theories, good leaders help employees clarify their responsibilities and then create situations in which those responsibilities can be effectively executed. By this standard, effective leaders create work situations for their subordinates that are free of role ambiguity. When role ambiguity does arise, effective leaders work to minimize it. Leadership theories also suggest that effective leaders show concern for the personal welfare of their subordinates. To the extent that supervisors care about employee well-being, they are likely to work toward reducing role ambiguity and other stressors.

Empirical evidence supports the notion that effective leader behavior is associated with low levels of role ambiguity. Leader initiating structure (i.e., the extent to which leaders engage in behaviors aimed at clarifying employee responsibilities) and leader consideration (i.e., the extent to which leaders show concern for employees), for example, are two leadership variables that are associated with low role ambiguity. Furthermore, employees are likely to experience little role ambiguity when their leaders provide opportunities for employee participation and create a formalized work environment. In short, role ambiguity is indicative of poor management practices. Indeed, many survey items measuring role ambiguity make specific reference to one’s supervisor.

In addition to the negative behaviors of supervisors, employees who report high levels of role ambiguity generally report having unfavorable work environments. Some of the environmental factors associated with role ambiguity are lack of autonomy, feedback, and task identity. In other words, role ambiguity is most likely to occur in simple, unenriched jobs. Furthermore, employees who report high levels of role ambiguity also generally report high levels of role conflict.

Individual differences may predispose individuals to experience role ambiguity. Individuals who have an external locus of control (i.e., those who believe they have little control over their lives), who are high in neuroticism, who are high in need for clarity, or who have low self-esteem, for example, are especially likely to report high levels of role ambiguity.

Consequences of Role Ambiguity

Perceptions of uncertainty are at the core of many workplace stressors, and role ambiguity is no exception. Uncertainty can result in many negative consequences. Indeed, several studies have shown that role ambiguity is related to manifestations of poor mental and physical health. For example, role ambiguity is associated with anxiety, burnout, depression, and physical illness.

In addition to these negative health consequences, role ambiguity is associated with both negative employee attitudes and ineffective job behaviors. Meta-analyses, for example, have found that role ambiguity is associated with the following attitudes:

  • Overall job dissatisfaction
  • Dissatisfaction with work tasks
  • Dissatisfaction with supervision
  • Dissatisfaction with coworkers
  • Low organizational commitment
  • Low job involvement
  • High turnover intention
  • Absenteeism

The correlation between role ambiguity and dissatisfaction with supervision is especially strong, suggesting that employees perceive management as the source of role ambiguity.

Important methodological issues surround the study of role ambiguity. Most of the research examining the causes and consequences of role ambiguity has used cross-sectional designs. This makes it difficult to draw strong conclusions about the causal relationships between role ambiguity and its potential causes and consequences.

Treatments for Role Ambiguity

Organizations have several options at their disposal for treating role ambiguity. Because ineffective leadership is a root cause of role ambiguity, the most promising treatments are likely to involve leaders. These treatments may include the following actions:

  • Training managers to identify when their own behaviors might lead to role ambiguity and encouraging them to modify these behaviors
  • Selecting managers who are likely to engage in high levels of initiating structure and consideration
  • Redesigning jobs to be more complex
  • Introducing efforts aimed at reducing role conflict

Given the negative consequences associated with role ambiguity, one might expect that organizations would be highly motivated to minimize the levels of role ambiguity experienced by their workers. However, as organizations focus more on the bottom line, unfavorable working conditions and their negative effects on employees are often overlooked.


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