All human beings are vulnerable. From our magnificent brains that serve as operating systems housed in a relatively fragile container, to the all too porous layers of fat and skin that protect our insides, we are a pretty “open system”. We don’t have scales, poisonous venom or huge fangs or claws. In this time of COVID, we are all more aware that to be human is to be vulnerable.
We can practically engage in mitigating risk by physically distancing, wearing a mask and washing our hands frequently. Our physical vulnerability is something we can protect with some certainty. In this post, it is the vulnerability of the state of awareness of not being certain, or sure, in which I am more interested.
I am talking about the expanding “not knowing” of our current time. The fact that as our work becomes more knowledge based, and artificial intelligence, access to data and information explodes, even those of us who are gifted with strong intelligence, excellent education, experience and good judgement, are starting to realize there is more and more we simply don’t know. And that is a big problem for most highly competent, accomplished people.
The thing is, we really like knowing. More importantly, the feeling of knowing, lights up our brain’s reward system. The feeling of knowing, in and of itself, can be highly attractive and for many of us, highly addictive.
And the feeling of not knowing can be uncomfortable. Not knowing can make us doubt ourselves and our work. For leaders this can paralyze our ability to make decisions. Yet, more and more, the best most of us can do is make the wisest decision, given what our teams and we know at a moment in time, and prepare to rapidly course-correct. Here we run into another roadblock of our attachment to “feeling certain”.
Our strong attraction to “being right” often makes it much more difficult to quickly adapt or change course. It also makes it hard for us to apologize, to admit we got it wrong and quickly move to solutions. If feeling right is highly addictive, feeling wrong is something to avoid at all costs. Therein lies the difficulty and the opportunity.
With more complex, adaptive challenges before us and less clear “right” answers at every turn, we must learn to become more comfortable with not knowing, to admitting we aren’t sure, and making the best (multidisciplinary and highly collaborative) decisions we can. And in order to make this an organizational habit, we need to get more skillful at managing the discomfort and inherent vulnerability with the feeling of not knowing.
This means that organizations must make it okay to experiment more often and reward and promote people who demonstrate comfort with ambiguity and adaptive learning. Leaders need to reward those who demonstrate they can persevere through uncertainty and make solid decisions anyway. This includes rewarding those who demonstrate they can put their ego on hold, and take quick action when the data shows that a correction or different approach is needed.
For leaders of all types, feeling more comfortable with not being certain is a valuable skill to improve. For executives, it is a requirement for the longevity and success of their business.
Moira Clarke founded Leadership Consulting Partners 20 years ago to help companies advance their leadership and people systems. If you are reading this to the end, and you find value, please say so and share with others on LinkedIn and Twitter. Thank you!
 For an excellent explanation of this I highly recommend On Being Certain, Believing You are Right Even When You’re Not, by Robert Burton, M.D.
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a (mostly) monthly post about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.