Do Emergency Managers Have A High Tolerance for Ambiguity?

It’s generally accepted that emergency managers, as a group, have a higher than average tolerance for ambiguity in crisis decision-making. A recent study, however, suggests that this may not be the case.

by Lucien G. Canton / March 28, 2019

It’s generally been accepted that one of the hallmarks of an emergency manager is a high tolerance for ambiguity. Ambiguity arises from a dissatisfaction with one’s understanding of a situation which in turn calls into question the effectiveness of the decision-making process. Emergency managers frequently deal with situations where not all the relevant facts are known, time is limited, and the stakes are high. This makes a tolerance for ambiguity a desirable trait in an emergency manager. But is this tolerance an inherent trait or is it something that can be cultivated? Does our profession tend to attract people with a high tolerance for ambiguity or is there something in out training that inures us to ambiguity?

In a recent article in the Journal of Emergency Management titled An empirical study on approaches to ambiguity in emergency and disaster response decision-making, researchers Christian Uhr, Henrik Tehler, and Misse Wester came to some interesting conclusions after testing a group of Swedish fire commanders.

  • Surprisingly, the group showed no more tolerance for ambiguity than other professional groups. This suggests that emergency managers as a group have no greater tolerance for ambiguity than any other group, despite having a reputation for such. The assumption that the profession attracts people with a high tolerance for ambiguity does not hold up.
  • Fire commanders who saw themselves as practically oriented showed more tolerance for ambiguity than those more academically inclined, suggesting a correlation between role-identification and tolerance for ambiguity.
  • Experience and age reduce the frequency of situations where ambiguity can occur. There also appears to be a difference between dealing with emergencies and dealing with disasters where the occurrence of ambiguity will inevitably be much higher.

It is this last point that I think is most significant. Since there appears to be no evidence that emergency managers have more tolerance for ambiguity than other professions, our best way of dealing with ambiguity is to reduce the circumstances under which we might encounter it by increasing experience. While Uhr et. al. acknowledge that experience can be increased they make no comment on whether this can be accomplished through exercises and simulations or requires actual experience in emergencies. We do have other evidence, particularly the work on recognition-primed decision-making by Gary Klein, that suggests that exercises can provide an experiential base for effective decision-making.

Platforms & Programs