By: Susan Mahoney
Dr. Robert A. Burton is a neuroscientist who has studied brain scans of people who demonstrate absolute certainty on a specific topic or issue and compared them with scans of people who practiced less certainty in their lives. In his book, “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not,” Dr. Burton writes that “a stance of absolute certainty that precludes consideration of alternative opinions has always struck me as wrong.” He set out to provide a scientific basis for challenging our belief in certainty. He concludes that absolute certainty is not biologically possible.
“Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process,” Dr. Burton writes. “Certainty and similar states of knowing what we know arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.”
My work and personal life are full of people who are absolutely certain of many things. In business, it may be their preferred strategy to solve a problem, a talent decision, or an investment decision. In personal relationships, a person’s political and religious beliefs often come with an embedded certainty.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
In my consulting and coaching practice, I work with organizations to implement change initiatives. There is no shortage of research, opinion, and solutions available that can support these initiatives to achieve success. What I have come to realize is that the success of a change initiative depends on whether the individuals involved decide to embrace, resist, or sabotage it. An individual’s reaction is an internal decision that can be influenced by external factors—but it ultimately comes from the stories they tell themselves.
In his book, “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life,” author Martin Seligman writes: “Your way of explaining events to yourself determines how helpless you can become, or how energized when you encounter everyday setbacks as well as momentous defeats.”
At the organizational level, leaders want teams who can perform in an environment of almost constant change. Yet, there are very few organizations that invest in helping their people to understand change, learn how to adapt to it, and learn how to change their internal narrative—the stories they tell themselves.
Navigating Certainty and Ambiguity
AchieveForum, a development organization that empowers people to lead successfully in turbulent business landscapes, helps organizations support their people navigate change. In a recent blog post, the organization wrote about three pillars that can help people become more adaptable to change: inner voice, energy supply, and ambiguity threshold. It is the Ambiguity Threshold that resonated with me regarding my work coaching organizations and individuals.
Certainty does not thrive in an environment of ambiguity. Dr. Burton writes that the brain doesn’t like ambiguity—it wants the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed, and soon. So, how do we tolerate ambiguity in ourselves and the workplace for long enough to obtain optimal solutions? By raising our ambiguity thresholds, we can better anticipate, adjust to, and handle ambiguity, uncertainty, and change more effectively.
In my individual coaching practice, I employ a process and tool from the book “Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization,” by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. As a part of the exercise, I work with the client to understand what’s getting in the way of achieving their goals. In the process, we look at the “Big Assumptions” that the client holds about the change. These “Big Assumptions” are the stories we tell ourselves. We tend to treat these assumptions as if they are truths about how we see ourselves and the world. Identifying these stories and working to challenge them is foundational to personal transformation.
The Leadership Factor
For anybody who has followed any of my previous blogs, I often write about leadership. After 30 years in the performance consulting space, one thing I have observed is that the success of an organizational initiative comes down to leadership. How do we hire, develop, and support the kinds of leaders that are desperately needed today?
Google conducted a recent study to determine the critical success attributes of its managers Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss. They analyzed more than 10,000 manager impressions and identified eight habits of highly effective managers. In my interest in certainty, one of these attributes stood out: Mindset and Values.
Implementing research from Dr. Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, Google encourages its managers to develop a growth mindset. As opposed to a fixed mindset, which is the belief that skills and abilities are predetermined, a growth mindset is a belief that intelligence can be cultivated. This simple idea develops leaders who are more eager to learn, challenge themselves, and experiment, and it eventually boosts their performance. Although success will always require tenacity, hard work, and concentration, this research suggests these traits are byproducts of a quality that underpins them—optimism.
The Power of Maybe
Allison Carmen wrote about “The Gift of Maybe: Finding Hope and Possibility in Uncertain Times.” Her work has resonated with me because it offers insights into the space between certainty and uncertainty, which is where “maybe” comes in. If we can hold the space of maybe—at least for a while—it can tame the risk of ambiguity long enough for us to explore new ways of thinking and new options.
Accepting and thriving through uncertainty starts with the individual. Check yourself when you feel certain on a topic. Where does this certainty come from? How does this certainty show up when engaging with others? Does it help or hurt your goals for communication and problem solving? How does your sense of ambiguity lead you to needing to find certainty? Give it a try. Stay with “maybe” for a while and see what comes up. Then try this with others or your team. You may find there is value in holding ambiguity and uncertainty to allow better ideas and solutions to surface.