The danger of certainty in an uncertain world

Is your business in danger of you or your team being so certain that the truth gets rejected?  We are entering a world of post-truth in politics – the truth no longer appears to matter and the people with the most certainty in their position seem to win. 

The outcome of the UK referendum and US Presidential elections were shocking because they were largely unexpected.  Many people were pretty certain that life would go on as normal and didn’t think too deeply about the issues at stake.  Many were lulled into complacency by their certainty that things would not change so they didn’t explore what the other side were really saying and what was mobilising them.  

The absence of truth

In the UK the general consensus from academics and experts was clear and there was a lack of openness to the views of those who were saying change was needed.  In the months running up to the referendum it was frustrating to see that both sides were becoming increasingly certain about their views.  There was no open and reflective dialogue, untruths were being declared as certainty and people on both sides shut out their opponents in totally polarised debates where the truth became meaningless.  The total absence of exploring the truth (or untruth) in any given slogan meant that people had little option but to vote with their feelings and emotions.  This meant that deep undercurrents and resentments were brought to the surface and the primal threat of lack of autonomy was triggered in many people, urging them to vote Leave. 

It has also been interesting to see that while only 52% of the UK voted for Leave the current UK Government is acting as if there was a 100% vote for Leave.  They have become totally dogmatic in their approach and seem to be immune to reflecting on the economic consequences of a ‘Hard Brexit’ which includes being out of the single market.  I fully understand that this approach could be a cynical ploy to improve their negotiating stance but it is neglecting the needs of 48% of the voting population and businesses who want some clarity.  This does not seem politically astute.  The imbalance in their approach could derail their project by creating unintended consequences. 

The Paradox of Opinions

While being certain has a number of benefits like confidence, providing direction, clarity and leadership, if it is not balanced it can create unintended consequences like a loss of different viewpoints, hindering collaboration, stifling of innovation and fixed views that can ultimately lead to poor decisions. 

In order to avoid the unintended consequences of certainty it is important to have a healthy level of being open and reflective.  This means you are more interested in exploring the truth than being right.  You are more interested in the value of diverse viewpoints and improving decisions, even if it is uncomfortable, because you know it stimulates innovation and the effective management of ambiguity. 

Natural tension

There is a natural tension between being certain and being open and reflective.  It takes courage and high levels of self-awareness to be able to admit that you may have been wrong.  This is because our brain will feel a drop in status if we admit that we were wrong and a drop in status triggers the same parts of the brain that signal physical pain.  A drop in status is one of the five primary threats that puts us in fight or flight mode, triggering a surge of neurochemicals that disrupt our thinking, make us more pessimistic and narrow focused (for more on this Click Here). 

On the other hand some people neatly avoid these feelings by being very open and reflective.  They pride themselves on their ability to collaborate, listen to ideas and take on board various viewpoints.  However, there are also unintended consequences of being very open and reflective.  These include being inconclusive and having unclear views.  Decisions can get delayed or swayed by the latest opinion being voiced.  This can hinder your ability to influence others and may give the impression of a lack of focus or direction.  

The beauty of the Paradox of Opinions is that the unintended consequences of both Primary Traits disappear when we can balance them with one another.  This means you can be confident in your opinions, yet continue to explore different viewpoints and adjust your opinions when appropriate. 

The proverb for this paradox is; “Greater knowledge can only be obtained by allowing what you already know to sit in the background while relentlessly pursuing a fresh new way of seeing the issue and being willing to be ‘wrong’ about one’s previous knowledge.” 

This Paradox is illustrated below:

It has two primary traits:

  • Certain, which is the tendency to feel confident in one's opinions.
  • Open/Reflective, which is the tendency to reflect on many different viewpoints. 

This creates four sub-traits depending on the relative strengths of the primary traits. 

When they are both strong you have ‘Balanced Versatility’ and the trait of ‘Truth Exploring’ which means the tendency to explore different viewpoints and formulate conclusions without becoming fixed in one's opinions.  

When the gentle trait of ‘Open/Reflective’ is strong but the dynamic trait of ‘Certain’ is weak it creates a ‘Passive Imbalance’ and you may become ‘Inconclusive’.  This is the tendency to lack certainty in one’s opinions while at the same time being very open to the ideas of others. 

If you have a high level of the dynamic trait of ‘Certainty’ with weak ‘Open/Reflective’ you can create an ‘Aggressive Imbalance’ and become ‘Dogmatic’.  This means demonstrating a tendency to be certain of one's own opinions while at the same time not being open to different ideas. 

When both traits are low you have a ‘Balanced Deficiency’ which can lead to ‘Uncertain Disinterest’.  This is a tendency to lack confidence in one's own opinions while at the same time not reflecting on different ideas and opinions.  Many of the people who don’t vote fall into this category in the context of politics. 

Awareness creates power

I was recently training some Directors in Coaching Skills and there were some light-bulb moments for the participants when we discussed of the principles of awareness and control.  In particular the following concept: I am only able to control that of which I am aware – that of which I am unaware controls me; awareness empowers me.  This can be translated into the idea that higher than normal awareness leads to higher than normal performance. 

When they got this concept they became noticeably more motivated to learn, practice and apply coaching techniques with their people.  They realised that their role is not to just provide all the answers but to ask questions to raise their people’s awareness because with awareness comes the power to make new and more effective decisions.  

This also applies to the Paradox of Opinions.  How effective are you at raising your awareness and the awareness of your team?  Are they relentlessly exploring the truth?  Or are they slipping into the imbalances mentioned above? 

Our politicians also need to become more aware of the imbalances in their opinions.  If they don’t adapt there will certainly be more disruptive outcomes than they expect!   Many famous brands have slipped into oblivion by being far too certain that they were right and missed the shifts in their market.  Others disappeared because they did too much flipping and flopping by following the latest fad and losing sight of their core principles.  Neither of these strategies work and in our current highly uncertain political and economic environment you and your team need to consider where you stand, and where the truth really lies. 

Increasing self and team awareness

Many clients are now taking advantage of the powerful individual and team insights available from the Harrison Paradox Report to identify the difference between a strong trait and a real strength.  A strong trait may be unbalanced and it is only a real strength when it has the appropriate paradoxical trait to compliment it and thus avoid the unintended consequences.  

To explore any of the above issues and to see where you stand on the Paradox of Opinions, as well as the eleven other Paradoxes in this unique assessment, just contact Gloria at

Remember, especially as you consider your opinions . . . Stay Curious! 

With best regards

David Klaasen 

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