The Conundrum of Certainty

Kathleen Peterson Rants & Raves by Kathleen Peterson

Eye witnesses, investigators, teachers, cult members, parents, managers, executives, and all of us at one time or another have something in common – the belief and power of certainty. This ranges from eye witnesses of a crime to swearing that “my keys were right there – who took them?” to telling a friend that they are making a terrible mistake by marrying “that creep.” The downside of certainty is that it sometimes results in information exclusion, a kind of tunnel vision that has but a single focus. And this creates a “conundrum” which is defined as a “paradoxical, insoluble, or difficult problem; a dilemma.” The Conundrum of Certainty is that we are coaxed, educated, and motivated to believe that making decisions and sticking to them is a characteristic of leadership and something to aspire to. But is it really?

Certainty drives behaviors that are based on extreme knowledge, deep beliefs, and even fear. Unfortunately, there is little difference in the subsequent behaviors if certainty leads to the exclusion of any and all other contradictory information. For many leaders and managers onlycomplementary information is welcome. Anything else becomes a threat; the focus turns away from the issue and onto who is “right.”

So what’s the point? The danger lies in continuing to make decisions for your business (and your personal life – but we won’t go there) based solely on the belief that your current condition is exactly what it needs to be to achieve your business goals and objectives.

Today’s leaders are stretched, and being able to make decisions quickly is certainly an asset. Or is it? The answer is yes and no. The Customer Service and Contact Center arena (as well as many other departments) demands that a multitude of information is quickly gathered, processed, and acted upon – daily, hourly, and even moment to moment in some cases. So there is efficiency in understanding the criteria against which decisions are made. It is within these criteria where certainty can yield its greatest returns or its most significant liabilities. I call this the “How Do You Know Conundrum?” – The Conundrum of Certainty.

Let’s take an example. If management believes that the front line’s training is less important right now because there are calls backed up in queue, training will be cancelled with the thought that certainly customers will be better served. OK … this happens to all of us sometimes. But the real question is “how often?” Many leaders have allowed these types of conditions to repeat in as predictable a fashion as the arrival pattern of calls. They believe, in fact they are CERTAIN, that service level and abandon rates are of greater importance than providing the promised training. Important questions emerge that are NOT generally asked by those leaders that consistently make these types of decisions. I am referring here to organizations that are in recurring crisis. Part of that crisis is related to the reality that because management is so certain that this is the proper response they don’t stop to ask about the impact of the decision. What are the risks? Are there other options? What am I afraid of? In my experience, when crisis and chaos reign supreme in the Contact Center, the certainty issue can typically be traced right up to the top of the house.

In the above example, agents grow tired of the fact that they are the ones burdened with solving a problem. They must compromise their ongoing training, their coaching sessions, their team meetings, and even their lunches because management (they believe – their “certainty”) is consistently ineffective in getting the right number of people in the right place at the right time. Think about this. If you’re buying pizza and such for your front line several times a month (or even a week!) because staff has been asked to “pitch in” to cover the latest “crisis,” take a step back.  Ask yourself, “Are we giving ice cream to combat troops?”

Frontline staff develop their own “retaliation.” The pecking order dictates that some agents will now take their frustration out on customers. Others will take it out on you, by leaving – contributing to a high turnover situation. Oddly enough, there are many times within high turnover environments, where leaders are reluctant to consider the true driver of employee satisfaction as a reason for attrition. They justify by saying, “We don’t pay enough,” “Our location is bad,” or “The schedules are tough.”  Rarely do they say, “Hey, we keep cancelling training; there hasn’t been a team meeting in months; and the quality program has become one of investigation and prosecution rather than of learning and development.”

Yet, these conditions do exist. It is the certaintythat the leader’s actions are “right,” rather than the ability to see the impact of the actions, that goes well beyond service level achievement. A curious fact is that within crisis-driven environments, service level remains a problem anyway. Never mind the fact that eliminating important frontline activities and programs provides erroneous data for staffing. In all, there is more damage than gain. Odd isn’t it? We need certainty to make good decisions; but at the same time certainty can become the enemy.

Leaders whose decisions are driven by fear often have a certainty that is more defensive than offensive because essentially they STOP looking for new information. They stick to a belief so intensely that it becomes their shield: “I know better than anyone what goes on here,” or another favorite, “That would never work here.” These leaders often suffer from distortion, deletion, and generalization when making decisions though their minds have the illusion of certainty. Defensive leaders – those defending their certainty – impede progress, ignore indicators that challenge their own beliefs, and rarely read about the latest trends in their industry.

While it is true that many executives will ask a business unit to take some action based on something as seemingly miniscule (to the uninformed) as an article in an airline magazine, these leaders are generally voracious readers. Reading is an activity that anyone in any role (from top to bottom) must find time for. Many successful organizations, particularly in the Customer Service and Contact Center world, have libraries; they award “points” to frontline management/staff that read a book/article or listen to a Podcast and report back to their teams. But this of course requires a budget, a space, and team meetings – three “threats” to Certainty Centered Defensive Leadership.

Most of us have been both rewarded and duped by certainty. We may have learned hard lessons, for example, trusting that a person or situation is one thing when in reality it is otherwise. This is when life’s lessons are forced upon us. Hopefully, we view these inevitable moments as learning opportunities. But for those who cling to their own view of a difficult situation, their certainty only fuels an already narrow vision. There is an innate refusal to believe they played a role or contributed to some disappointing condition.

What to do? Curiosity needs to become part of certainty – “I am certain because I have evaluated the situation.” Does this take longer? Only at first. Once leaders become curious, they see the broader picture than their “limiting beliefs” previously allowed. This morphs decision-making into a more “confident” certainty by having sought out additional information and possibly learning something new. The rewards of certainty are reaped when a lesson is learned and applied moving forward, when a situation is evaluated based on a broad view with input from multiple resources, and when options have been considered and tested.

There is a “conditioning phase” when adopting a deliberate path away from Certainty Centered Defensive Leadership. Take a couple of time outs. Look around with a new set of eyes. Involve a few members of your team in a total evaluation of your environment. Ask questions. Practice listening instead of distorting, deleting, and generalizing. Once you use this approach, seeking new information becomes a passion and a thirst for learning. And … curiosity, as a factor of certainty, becomes a habit.

The greatest leaders and organizations are always those that look to improve. They seek knowledge and input from many sources. If your objectives include growth (personal and professional), quality of life (personal and professional), and respect (personal and professional), evaluate your use of certainty. Ask yourself, “What is it I am sure of?” and take a very close look by asking new questions: “What is it that I don’t know?” and “What is it that I refuse to see?”

You will see that there is often a question involved in the discovery process. The road is sometimes painful; however, it is also infinitely rewarding. Bumps and all, it is a far more interesting trip. Bon Voyage and Good Luck!

“If we insist on being as sure as is conceivable…we must be content to creep along the ground, and can never soar.”  John Henry Newman, English Cardinal, 1801-1890