The Tyranny of Certainty
Certainty is a brutal tyrant. We strive with great effort to meet its demands and most often fail. We have learned to live our lives under its oppression and because it is an idea rather than a thing we hardly even recognize its presence, let alone the havoc it creates.
It is time to rebel.
Most of what managers do in organizations is in the service of creating certainty. Strategy for a certain future, values for certain behavior, performance management for certain results, communication for certain understanding and on and on. And if we don’t achieve this certainty, someone has failed. This pall of failure and pending blame and guilt hangs over each of us in our drive for certainty.
This is not about abandoning strategy or values or performance management systems. It is about abandoning the assumption that these things will or should create certainty, and acknowledge its opposite; uncertainty. We cannot know if this will make things better, but we do know it will make the thinking of our experience of being in an organization more realistic.
As leaders, managers, organizational development professionals, we are constantly caught in the paradox of supporting, these organizational activities aimed at creating certainty and predictability while managing the inevitable fallout when the reality of uncertainty transpires.
When we have talked to people about the reality of uncertainty they very quickly recognize their own experience. They have their own stories to tell that reflect this reality. Then an interesting thing happens. People will often resist the idea of uncertainty even though they see it in their own experience. They will say things like; ‘Well if I’d done this differently”, or “If we’d only known such and such things would have been different”. When asked to think seriously about the practical implications of uncertainty, they will say things like, “Oh well you’re saying everything is relative so it doesn’t matter what I do since the outcome is uncertain”.
What people seem to be grappling with is the crumbling away of an unquestioned way of seeing the world and not knowing if they still have a foundation to stand on; a different way of seeing the world that will work for them.
They stand at the center of a paradox, an unanswerable question. If I choose to do something, will it make any difference?
So why are we suggesting a conscious and concerted approach to naming and living with the reality of uncertainty? A rebellion against the current norm? Why is this important? There are numerous reasons but we think one is paramount.
It pushes people to own their choices. The power of self management grows.
What we have found from our own experience and listening to others is that this place can be a place of real power. It is a place where individual choice matters. Not just the content of the choice itself, but the concept of choice, in the present moment, is all that matters. Some people won’t care, but others, and we believe most others, will take that place of paradox very seriously and respond with their own choices, not for certainty, but because a choice is important.
The drive for certainty limits the power of choice to a very few people. This is why a rebellion against certainty is needed. We need more people standing in the paradox mentioned above.
And then let’s see what happens.
Author – Tom