What are the Risks of Certainty? 2040’s Ideas and Innovations Newsletter, Issue 143

Kevin Novak
6 min readJan 18, 2024

Issue 143, January 18, 2024

Human nature, at its deepest core, reinforces our longing for certainty and the prospect of security and stability. We don’t want things around us to change. We want assurance that what we know is true and real. We want certainty that we made the right decisions and choices so that outputs and outcomes will be what we expect. Ambiguity creates anxiety and insecurity and makes us defensive. Ambiguity makes most of us feel uncomfortable, yet ambiguity and uncertainty can result in our biggest jumps forward in progress.

Toto, I’ve Got a Feeling We Aren’t in Kansas Anymore

Operating in today’s ever-changing, highly disruptive, unpredictable, asymmetrical marketplace is far from ensuring certainty. Darwin’s theory of natural selection appears especially relevant today as the operative mode to survive and thrive. As Professor Scott Galloway says, “The species that survive are not the smartest, strongest, or fastest … but the most adaptable.” That seems to be true today as much as it has been in the history of evolution. Regardless, it doesn’t seem to discourage many leaders from deferring to certainty rather than adaptability as a leadership strategy. The classic profile of leading with courage and confidence exudes a sense of certainty to provide the workforce with a cocoon of security. Even if that certainty becomes a harbinger of failure.

In our ongoing exploration of strategies for surviving and thriving in today’s dynamic marketplace, we’re tackling the temptation to make decisions and choices and run an organization based on certainty.

The Risk of Certainty

“Certainty profoundly shapes our behavior. The more certain we are of a belief — regardless of its objective correctness — the greater its influence will be on what we do,” states the Harvard Business Review. We have all run into — and probably worked with — individuals who complain about the fact that the rest of the organization doesn’t see what is crystal clear to them. They believe they have a clear vision of a pathway to success. They are convinced they have made all the correct decisions to lay the foundations for that pathway: the right hires, establishing a playbook, and creating a high-performance workplace culture. Their sense of certainty is irrefutable…to them.

In our book, The Truth About Transformation, we reveal the single biggest influence leading to successful transformation: the human factor. Leading with certainty typically doesn’t factor into how the rest of the organization understands the vision or how to achieve it. We discuss the necessity for setting an organization’s North Star and infusing it with a shared purpose. Without these foundational underpinnings, failure is a certainty.

The human condition consciously and subconsciously resists change. That said, this presents a contradiction when people want leaders to show strength and confidence and communicate strategies and direction that exude certainty. A workforce trusts its leader. When a leader does not present with confidence, the workforce feels confused leading employees to feel insecure, if not rudderless. So, what are the issues about certainty that cause such a disconnect?

Attitude Certainty

To get a lucid understanding of the risks of certainty, we turn to an expert on the subject, Zakary L. Tormala, who is a social psychologist and professor of marketing at Stanford University Graduate School. His work focuses on “attitude certainty,” which he defines as “The subjective sense of confidence or conviction a person has about an attitude or opinion.” That certainty has a ripple effect among others, as Tormala explains, “When people hold their attitudes with certainty, they are more likely to defend them, more likely to engage in behavior that is consistent with them, and more likely to advocate or try to convince others to share their view. Attitude certainty promotes self-certainty when the attitude is central to one’s identity.”

Yes, but. In our practice, we have encountered leadership certainty that is often filtered by personal bias. This is certainty informed by incomplete information, lack of direct experience, perceived consensus, and the absence of critical thinking. We’ve all met highly confident individuals who are impressive in their certainty. They feel they need to project that level of control and confidence, even though market conditions may be fraught with uncertainty. However, too often that attitude is a cover for a deep insecurity, or a defensive power positioning ensuring that those around the table follow without question. Let’s just say, the genuinely confident leaders comfortable with ambiguity, are the ones who ultimately survive, thrive, engender loyalty, and lead successful organizations.

So, back to the risks of certainty, Tormala’s research reveals that “People feel more confident about their attitudes after they defend them.” But there’s a flipside to this tactic. He says, “When people had a hard time generating arguments — because many more arguments were requested — they felt less certain about those arguments.” Bridging theory to business practice, he explains, “When you are trying to change someone’s attitude or behavior, even if you don’t see immediate impact from an ad campaign, a personal appeal, or any other kind of message, you might have had an underlying effect on attitude certainty.” This process can be distilled into a persuasion strategy based on confident certainty. That’s not just jargon!

The Certainty Effect

Evaluating risk and reward is at the heart of the Certainty Effect, which occurs when “people give more weight to outcomes that are considered certain than outcomes that are just possibilities. We would rather get an assured, lesser win than take a chance at winning more if it also comes with a small risk of getting nothing,“ according to Newrisrics. This behavior basically boils down to being risk averse. We support Newrisrics in the analysis that “slight ambiguity or unknown outcomes can signal brain feedback that generates a threat response. Our brains avoid uncertainty because it causes a sense of pain, while certain rewards come with satisfaction.” We can’t fool our limbic system, and the desire for certainty often rules over logic.

So, in terms of marketing, “The more certain a claim or message is, the more likely it will be to influence a consumer or audience. When marketing services or products, a writer can leverage the Certainty Effect by emphasizing certain benefits, discounts, and characteristics.” To sum it up, “Using sure facts and benefits, rather than probabilistic outcomes will be more influential in messaging. A message related to certain, definite, and sure outcomes will be more impactful than one that speaks in probabilistic terms.”

Finding Balance

As in everything in life, balance is essential. Brian de Haaff, CEO of Aha, believes that it is imperative for leaders to balance certainty with uncertainty without losing themselves. “Certainty means nearly always having the answers to tough questions and answering those challenges with confidence. Uncertainty is when the answers are not immediately clear or when you make a decision but are tortured by self-doubt and second-guessing.” Given the alternative, he advocates for certainty as a management strategy. However, “There is a direct relationship between success and uncertainty. Ironically, the more successful you are, the more uncertainty surrounds you. This is because, as your business grows, everything else does too — more team members, customers, partners, competitors, and opportunities.”

Clearly, we live in uncertain times where everything around us seems to change too quickly. Our approach at 2040 is cautionary. Do not be tempted by short-term gains led by certainty and lose the long-term game. Uncertainty plays a role in critical thinking and viewing challenges and opportunities holistically. It’s impossible to wargame everything, but it’s possible to use foresight, research the socioeconomic and cultural trends, and leverage the strengths and talents of your workforce to systemically evaluate and implement a systems-thinking strategy to run an organization. That approach acknowledges that certainty and ambiguity are ever-present partners.

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Kevin Novak

4X webby winner, CEO and Chief Strategy Officer @2040 Digital (www.2040digital.com), IADAS Member, Speaker, Author, Science Nut