On a deep psychological level we seek certainty. We want others to project it – even if it is misplaced. In a new article for CommPRO.biz, I argue that leaders need to embrace uncertainty both to avoid the main pitfall of overconfidence in outcomes – that trust is lost – and, as the basis for finding the mental calmness required to help others through crises.
The article, “Embracing Uncertainty”, notes that there’s only one certainty with the coronavirus pandemic: This too shall pass. But, there’s a legion of uncertainties.
I note that uncertainty is deeply troubling and drives fear. Certainty provides anchors in our lives and minds. I have written in the past that when we chase things that are scarce, we go into tunnels and risk making poor choices. (Read: Why We Make Bad Decisions & How We Can Make Better Ones).
And, since others look for confidence, it’s tempting for leaders to respond accordingly. (Read: The Confidence Paradox).
In the article, I note: “Doctors offer a great example of this conundrum. When we go to the doctor, we look for answers. If a doctor truthfully states that the symptoms are complex, it will take time to understand them, and medication may or may not work, this is likely something a patient doesn’t want to hear. From the patient’s perspective, they want an expert to tell them what’s wrong and give them the pills to cure it.”
There’s a downside when leaders or experts are overconfident. When they are wrong, we feel deceived. Not only do we lose trust, but we are likely to turn on them.
Striking the right balance between inspiring confidence while reflecting the uncertainty of a situation is a challenge. It’s also important to recognize that since all of us would prefer certainty, we should not be surprised when many choose to ignore inconvenient facts and realities.
In a crisis it is hard, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, to “keep your head when all around are losing theirs.” It is hard to find the balance we need as leaders.
David Brooks wrote recently in a New York Times opinion article on the pandemic:
“I’m beginning to appreciate the wisdom that cancer patients share: We just can’t know. Don’t expect life to be predictable or fair. Don’t try to tame the situation with some feel-good lie or confident prediction. Embrace the uncertainty of this whole life-or-death deal.
There’s a weird clarity that comes with that embrace. There is a humility that comes with realizing you’re not the glorious plans you made for your life. When the plans are upset, there’s a quieter and better you beneath them.”
That’s worth keeping in mind.
Recognizing what we know and don’t know, as well as the behavioral drivers around the desire for certainty, offers a starting place for clear-eyed approaches to communications and business strategy.
And, as the article concludes: “Perhaps most important, embracing uncertainty is a foundation for the mental calmness required for us to be the rock that others will rely on to get through the crisis.”
Simon Erskine Locke, founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatchTM
CommunicationsMatch offers communications & PR agency search tools and resources that help companies find, shortlist, and hire agencies, consultants and freelancers. Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior corporate communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies.