The Problem With Certainty

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One of the events that will be remembered from the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games is U.S. gymnast Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from several competitions — and then return to the stage to win a bronze medal. Media coverage of Biles’ actions echoed what tennis star Naomi Osaka experienced after her decision to withdraw from the 2021 French Open. By and large, people either lauded them for prioritizing their mental and physical health or chastised them for not toughing it out and keeping their commitments.

Although news stories of these events ultimately coalesced to commend these individuals for their bravery, the public’s initial reaction remained the same: People were certain that there was only one way to understand these actions. The possibility that the decisions came after weighing several equally important factors and priorities was rarely, if ever, considered.

Organizations have faced similar divisive reactions to controversial decisions. In 2012, JC Penney was targeted for a boycott by the conservative American Family Association (via its website for hiring Ellen DeGeneres, an out lesbian woman, as a spokeswoman. They called for her removal but dropped their boycott after a month. That same year, a rainbow version of Oreo cookies as part of a June Pride month campaign also led to calls for a boycott. In response, Basil Maglaris, Kraft’s associate director of corporate affairs at the time, told Reuters that the company “has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness” and that “the Oreo ad is a fun reflection of our values.” Today, a company having a gay spokesperson or Pride-related products is generally regarded with indifference, if not delight.

Finally, consider the conversations taking place around the world and across industries about whether organizations should continue to allow people to work from home or require them to return to their physical offices. The passions felt by each side can end in individuals confronting or even vilifying people who argue for the opposite policy.

It seems our collective capacity to consider — simultaneously — the many sides to a decision is weak, if not nonexistent. We crave certainty in some (any!) aspect of our lives, and the pressures of the moment reinforce our natural tendency toward confirmation bias. Seeing an issue through another person’s eyes has become too uncomfortable to bear, especially in light of the marathon ills, both literal and figurative, we are enduring from the COVID-19 pandemic. The continual demands of adjusting to changes in our home and work environments have left us with little emotional energy and cognitive space.

The problem, however, is that being certain about the rightness or wrongness of others’ decisions leaves little room for us to grow or expand our understanding, not just of other people but of their situations and their circumstances. Our inability to control a knee-jerk reaction that shuts down ambivalence borne from disagreement or uncertainty limits our ability to make progress, personally and professionally. In other words, we get stuck. We get stuck as individual citizens, and we get stuck as managers and leaders.

How do we get unstuck? By doing what’s uncomfortable, unfortunately.

The Challenges of Ambivalence

We feel ambivalence when we simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs or opinions. In fact, we can lean both toward and against a decision, perhaps for the same reason or different reasons. Humans are funny this way. We often hold incongruous views that stir conflicting emotions, and this experience is uncomfortable. But our need for certainty means we jump to one side of the issue or another.

Surprisingly, we do this even when we don’t know the cause of our ambivalence. When experiencing discomfort, our focus is generally on stopping it rather than exploring its causes. This is problematic for many reasons, including the ways it contributes to the deep polarization that currently characterizes many parts of our world.

Consider how this dynamic is playing out in what U.S. health officials are calling the pandemic of the unvaccinated. For some organizations, a vaccine mandate is a no-brainer. Not only do the COVID vaccines help people escape serious illness and death if they become infected, but they also help protect kids and people struggling with other serious or chronic illnesses. Companies including United Airlines, Tyson Foods, and Walmart were among the first to institute vaccine mandates. Some state governments trying to avoid the reprise of our collective house arrest in 2020 have also taken swift action, with Washington leading the way. For other managers and policy makers, however, the choice to not get the vaccine is also a no-brainer. Beyond the fear fomented through misinformation that has made some individuals certain they want to avoid the vaccine altogether, employee concerns over civil liberties (and until late August, the lack of FDA approval; the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has since been approved) have generated strong opposition to instituting any mandate.

In these situations (and countless others), how can we entertain an opposing view when the “right” choice is so clear to us? It’s painful to consider why someone would make such a “wrong” choice. This psychological pain is real. Yet our exasperation can also prevent us from finding a way forward.

Sometimes we need to embrace ambivalence a little more, and a little longer, than we might normally. Otherwise, we risk getting stuck in our opposing sides feeling anxious, angry, and depressed.

How to Be More Open

Getting unstuck and being more open to hearing points of view that don’t make sense to us requires us to build capacity to withstand cognitive discomfort. In my research, my colleague Cristiano Guarana (of the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University) and I have found that when people are able to figure out why they’re feeling ambivalent, they make more effective decisions. I liken this to building muscles, as it requires us to embrace tension, grow through stress, and address damage. Below, I use this analogy to discuss how it might inform our individual choices in three (not so easy) steps.

Step 1: Embrace the tension that comes from the full range of options. In the gym, this involves doing a full range of motion to keep constant tension on the muscle through reps that stretch and squeeze the muscle. In life and in business, this involves engaging with issues constantly and fully from multiple perspectives — even the points of view with which we disagree. Embracing a full range of views allows you to keep testing your own perspectives and assumptions.

Step 2: Don’t run from stress. In the gym, muscle stress occurs when you feel activated — some call this a burn. In life and business, this is the feeling of rage, anger, or even hopelessness triggered by hearing an opposing view. Acknowledging and leaning into the experience of disagreement will stretch (and squeeze) your patience and tolerance. One simple exercise: Switch to a news channel or radio station that makes you mad. Listen long enough to allow your emotional reaction to stabilize (or subside) so your mind can process what’s being said.

Step 3: Address the damage. In the gym, lifting weights can cause muscle damage, but that prompts your body to repair and grow. You need to continually change the ways you challenge your muscles to keep building strength. In life and business, addressing the damage caused by stress involves a purposeful process of recovery and growth. Damage will not automatically prompt repair; rather, we must make time for it and employ the help of others. This could entail seeking out others to help you work through a perspective you are having a hard time processing, or asking questions to understand perspectives different from your own.

Repairing the effects of cognitive stress so that we don’t, in turn, get locked into unhealthy certainties requires us to find ways to restabilize our minds and bodies — to overcome “the twisties,” as Simone Biles might put it. Growth comes with recovery. By seeking out different challenges, greater nuance and care in how we characterize points of view that are different from our own, we expand our capacity to withstand the cognitive discomfort that comes from ambivalence. We become stronger and more flexible as both individuals and organizations.

And then we repeat the process the next day, and the next.



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
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