Very Frustrated by Ambiguity?

New research reveals that pros and cons of this particular personality trait.

Posted Feb 14, 2019

Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.

—Jack Welch

Are you someone who must complete a task or you somehow don’t feel right? If something is too open-ended, or when you are faced with the need to call up creativity and openness to experience, do you find yourself wanting? If so, you may be someone with a higher “need for closure” (NFC) than others. Psychologists (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994) define NFC as “a stable dispositional preference for order and predictability, an urgent desire to reach decisions, affective discomfort with ambiguity, and ‘closed-mindedness.’”

Creativity and perfection

Why is it important to understand how NFC affects performance in diverse environments, presumably both personal and professional? People high in NFC may have trouble making decisions, experience psychological dysfunction, and stumble over how information is taken in and used, as Wrońska and colleagues note in a recently published study. They discuss performance on convergent and divergent tasks: Convergent tasks are those requiring a single correct answer, while divergent tasks require participants to produce as many possible solutions as they can cook up.

Prior research suggests that folks high on NFC tend to be less creative and less persistent on tasks that involve divergent thinking, regardless of how challenging or threatening that task is (Sankaran et al., 2017). In contrast, low NFC people seem to do better—solve problems more creatively—with challenging yet less threatening tasks. Low NFC people were also more likely to persist in the face of a challenge but be deterred by anxiety-provoking tasks. High NFC participants have the advantage of performing consistently regardless of how threatening a task feels to them, but do worse overall on tasks requiring creativity. For convergent tasks, more certain and defined in scope and outcome, high NFC people are likely to be more comfortable and may work better to completion. Low NFC people, on the other hand, may lose interest in the absence of sufficient challenge, deterred by anxiety-provoking aspects of the job at hand.

With these considerations in mind, Wrońska, Bujacz, Goclowska, Rietzschel, and Nijstad designed a study to look at “Person-Environment Fit,” an area of key importance in matching people up with optimal work environments. Person-Environment Fit is useful for identifying both expectations for functional challenges and strengths as well as discovering areas for potential intervention and enhancement.

Pick people who fit well—or if you don’t have that luxury, train them to address areas which clash and adjust the environment to set them up for success—if you can. People whose personalities match their work environment ought to do better and feel better in their roles. To date, research has not looked at how Need for Closure determines an important component of Person-Environment Fit, the fit between the individual and the specific task laid out for them to do. This aspect of Person-Environment Fit is, as one might expect, called "Person-Task Fit."

How does the need for closure determine fit with convergent versus divergent tasks?

To look at this question, the research team measured NFC for 863 adults from six different countries (Austria, Italy, Ireland, Poland, Sweden, and the UK), across five different languages, measuring feelings of competence, and positive and negative emotional responses, for convergent and divergent tasks.

Need for Closure was measured using the 15-item, brief Need for Closure Scale (link to full NFC scale). Performance was not directly measured in this study for logistical reasons, but as noted above it has been shown to vary with high and low NFC.

A stern task-master

What tasks did participants work on? Divergent thinking tasks included generating cartoon captions, brainstorming different ways to use rubber bands, and finding better ways of designing a table for those with impaired vision. The convergent thinking tasks included identifying differences between two different cartoons, reading a passage and then answering factual questions about it, and putting together instructions for how to assemble a table. The divergent and convergent tasks were developed to have similar levels of difficulty, overlapping thematically while varying in terms of the definition of success.

Competence and creativity

There were several notable findings. First of all, results were consistent across different language groups, suggesting that the results have some cross-cultural validity. High NFC participants experienced themselves as more competent on the convergent tasks, while lower NFC folks felt just as competent with either type of task. Participants who felt more positive emotions also experienced themselves as more competent, and visa versa for those reporting negative emotions, an effect significant only for high NFC people.

I interviewed Primary Investigator Marta Wrońska (of the University of Groningen’s Department of Human Resource Management and Organizational Behavior in the Netherlands). She notes that for high NFC participants, “solving a divergent task led to lower competence than solving a convergent task. This, in turn, diminished positive feelings and increased negative feelings.”

Low NFC participants did not show a relationship between competence and reported emotional state regardless of whether they worked on divergent or convergent tasks. These findings are noteworthy because they look at competence and emotions for specific tasks, rather than measures of fit with the work environment in general. This, in turn, suggests that high NFC people may require more tailoring of their environment and task selection to perform optimally, while low NFC people may be more adaptable to diverse work settings.

In closing

More research is needed to look at how NFC relates to different types of tasks, and especially those which are more reflective of real-world work environments, involving complex decisions and working with people with a range of personality traits, to look at team fit. For example, does the quality of collaboration vary with the mix of low and high NFC workers? It’s easy to imagine that high and low NFC people might have difficulty getting along, especially if they haven’t discussed the differences in their work style and how to accommodate one another. On the other hand, if they delegate appropriately, high and low NFC approaches could be powerful in combination.

It would also be interesting to study NFC and other personality factors in real-world work environments in long-term, prospective studies. I'm particularly curious about the possible relationships among NFC, perfectionism, and the tendency to worry, for example. Is high NFC associated with greater neuroticism? Does low NFC correlate with greater open-mindedness? In other words, to what extent is NFC a function of the Big 5 personality traits, and to what extent is it an independent construct?

Stepping away from work for a moment, does NFC apply to personal relationships, where competence and satisfaction require performance on a variety of divergent and convergent tasks? Does NFC similarity predict greater relationship satisfaction, or are couples happier if they have a combination of high and low NFC? Maybe it depends on how they work together, rather than just as a function of traits alone. Another thought, does Need for Closure predict how well we get over break-ups? Relationship research would benefit from looking at NFC.

Regardless, NFC is a useful construct in performance environments because it directly looks at closure, a defining feature of task, rather than just personality. Tracking workgroups across different professional and cultural contexts, measuring performance and personality traits and seeing what works best and what causes glitches would immeasurably help organizations build better teams. Prior research has shown that creativity is reduced in high NFC groups working under time pressure (Chirumbolo et al., 2004), but did not look at interactions among group participants. How would this play out in real-world settings to get the most value with the highest efficiency? As our world becomes faster and faster, and more and more concise, we need to pare things down. 

Per Wrońska:

“Importantly, work environments might be more or less fitting to people's needs, and some of the project management methods might be particularly conflicting with a high need to achieve closure. In the booming IT sector, agile software development is an approach that requires employees to flexibly respond to changing requirements. In such specific environments, personality traits may outweigh the best skills and the most extensive experience. Bearing this in mind will hopefully lead to better career choices and more successful professional collaborations.”

Higher need for closure individuals bring qualities to the workplace that are indispensable. On a leadership level, given the right balancing blend of complementary traits, need for closure promotes task completion, saving us from the hazards of rampant divergence. Explorers, after all, eventually hope to make shore in new and undiscovered lands... and not to forever remain adrift.

Clearly, excellence requires a shifting blend of creativity and rote, ritual and spontaneity, novelty and consistency, a delicate interplay between convergence and divergence. Large projects often start with a vision, developing over time and diverging ultimately to converge on a final target. At times though, the final target is itself not a convergent one, but rather may be, for example, a process which self-sustainingly unfolds and grows over time.