Jan 072016

The Illusion and (Mis)uses of Certainty

September’s Harvard Business Review had a really thought-provoking article for me called How Certainty Transforms Persuasion.  Seth Godin wrote a blog post around the same time called The Illusion of Control.  The two together make for an interesting think about using information to shape behavior as leaders.  I’ve often been accused of delivering too many mixed messages to the company at all-hands meetings, so I enjoyed the think, though not in the way I expected to.

Let’s start with Seth’s thesis, which is easier to get through.  Essentially he says that nothing is certain, at best we can influence events, we’re never actually in control of situations…but that we think we are:

When the illusion of control collides with the reality of influence, it highlights the fable the entire illusion is based on…You’re responsible for what you do, but you don’t have authority and control over the outcome. We can hide from that, or we can embrace it.

Moving onto the much longer HBR article, the key thesis there is that certainty shapes our behavior, as the more certain we are of a belief (whether it’s correct or incorrect), the more it influences us:

In short, certainty is the catalyst that turns attitudes into action, bringing beliefs to life and imbuing them with meaning and consequence.

At first, it seems like these two positions might be at odds with each other, but there are other interesting nuggets in the HBR article as well that tie the two positions together.  First, that the packaging of information influences the certainty of the consumers of that information (for example, when a generally positive product reviews takes pains to admit the product’s deficiencies).  Second, that your own position in a given situation may influence your level of certainty (for example, when you are the most senior person in the room, as opposed to when you are the most junior person in the room).

The HBR article then goes on to talk about four ways companies can boost certainty in their employee population, since certainty is a driver of behavior:

  1. Consensus – showing your view is widely shared (or shaping your view to perceptions)
  2. Repetition – having people express their own opinions repeatedly (encourage customers, employees, etc. to express positive opinions or opinions aligned with corporate goals)
  3. Ease – how easily an idea comes to mind (making good, regular visual use of key concepts)
  4. Defense – people are more certain after defending a position (being a devil’s advocate in an argument to get employees to defend their position)

My initial reaction to reading both Seth’s post and the HBR article was that if Certainty is nothing but an illusion, and yet it’s a key driver of behavior, then using Certainty by definition a manipulative management technique.  Say something’s true enough, get people to believe it, hope it’s right.  Or worse, get people to say it themselves enough so they believe their own inner monologues, not just yours.  But then I thought about the feedback that I get — that I deliver too many mixed messages — and changed my view. Coming across as certain, even when certainty may or may not be real, isn’t any more manipulative than any other management or even sales technique.  Our job as leaders is to generate inspiration and activity in our teams, isn’t it?  Using certainty isn’t by definition disingenuous, even if it’s an illusion at times.  It’s one thing to be All In, Until You’re Not, for example, and another thing entirely to publicly support a position that you know is false.  All we can do as leaders is to do our best.

Having said that, I think using certainty as a management tool is something leaders need to do judiciously given how powerful it is, and also given its fragility.  If business results are mixed, you can’t stand up in front of a room full of people and say things are great (or terrible), even if your people are seeking a black and white answer.  However, you can (and should) communicate your certainty that the direction you choose to take your team or your company is the right one.  And you can use transparency to further bolster your position.  Share the details of HOW you reached your decision with the people on your team.  After all, if you’re not certain, or if the logic that drove your certainty is flawed, why would anyone follow you?