Many people suffer from “chronic certainty” on issues for which no perfect answer exists. Here are three ways we’ve seen leaders get underneath chronic certainty to help themselves and others broaden their perspectives and have more productive conversations.
Get behind the origins of chronic certainty. Cognitive biases come in many forms, and often underlie dogmatic viewpoints. Staunch certainty is always rooted in deeply held, but often unconscious, beliefs.
Slow things down. If the certainty represents a pattern, don’t try and address it during an argument about a specific issue. Instead, schedule a separate conversation to address your concern. You might say something like, “Whenever we find ourselves on different sides of an issue, I feel as if you assert your views with such unbending force that I either want to shut down or dismiss your confidence. It would help me to know that my views were being considered, even if you don’t agree with me.”
Consider how your organization might be encouraging certainty. Does your culture prize assertive convictions? Is decision-making perceived to be competitive? Do people feel as if appearing uncertain about their views will be perceived as weak? In certain situations, like conversations around strategic planning, budgeting and talent management, where people perceive a lot to be at risk, the need to appear certain becomes a matter of survival.
To avoid institutionalizing certainty as the preferred approach to articulating views or requests, ask people to come to meetings with pros and cons. Make it a routine to have others on the team weigh in with differing views when making decisions. Approaches like these normalize the need for people to self-regulate, balancing confidence in one’s views without the dogma of certainty.
Acknowledge if others’ certainty makes you resistant. For some, the convictions of others can feel threatening to our own views and values. Confirmation bias leads us to screen out disconfirming views, so when we are forced to contend with differences, we naturally resist. We can become overly defensive, or withdrawn, dismissing information that might be very important.
With so much emphasis these days on speaking up, we need to learn to temper our voices by listening, especially when making important decisions for which there are conflicting options. Remember that speaking “your” truth is far different from speaking the truth.
(Ron Carucci is a co-founder and managing partner at Navalent. Jarrod Shappell is a partner there.)