My business partner loves uncertainty. She deliberately won’t book a hotel till the last minute so she has the excitement of not knowing where she’ll be staying that night. She starts her shopping on Christmas eve. She actually enjoys hot desking. She is not the norm. The majority of us don’t just like certainty in our lives, we crave it. As David Rock from the NeuroLeadership Institute puts it, “A sense of uncertainty about the future generates a strong threat or 'alert' response in your limbic system….Your brain doesn't like uncertainty - it's like a type of pain, something to be avoided.”
'I am not uncertain' (Billions)
So, our response to the increasing levels of business volatility we face is to try and pretend that we’re more certain that we are. We produce five year strategic plans. We seek increasing levels of data. We engage in endless scenario planning and forecasting activity. Our leaders present us with graphs that show us how the numbers will increase. All to try and create an illusion of certainty that makes us feel better. If you’ve watched the fantastic TV series “Billions” you will remember the oft-repeated line “I am not uncertain” as the ultimate recommendation the hedge fund analysts can give.
We are doing our people a disservice by pretending we know
But our efforts are not just an illusion but also unhelpful. If we tell our employees that we know what’s going to happen then we do them a disservice. Firstly, because we are misleading them and thereby continue to build the distrust in leadership that is now higher than ever, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. But also, because we then don’t prepare them for coping with and embracing the opportunities that can arise from disruption. As David Rock puts it: “Knowing that we automatically avoid uncertainty explains why any kind of change can be hard - it's inherently uncertain. It explains why we prefer things we know over things that might be more fun, or better for us, but are new and therefore uncertain. It explains why we prefer the certainty of focusing on problems and finding answers in data from the past, rather than risking the uncertainty of new, creative solutions.”
So much of HR aims to provides guarantees where none exist
HR is complicit in creating this illusion of certainty. So many of our processes aim to give guarantees for the future. For example:
- We implement leadership competency frameworks that attempt to prescribe the ideal criteria for leadership. I have spent countless hours trying to nail the perfect set of competencies to measure leaders against. A fool’s errand. Leaders are not and never can be that perfect. And how can HR possibly predict exactly what is needed when things are moving so fast?
- We invest heavily in workforce planning and skills gap analysis in our attempts to provide certainty about the shape and size of our organisation when 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist
- We complete the ubiquitous 9 Box Grid to provide us clarity about the potential of our people and yet as Marcus Buckingham writes in his article for HBR on rater bias “The research record reveals that neither you nor any of your peers are reliable raters of anyone. And as a result, virtually all of our people data is fatally flawed.”
- We produce detailed succession plans to give us comfort that we have a pipeline of leaders. Yet, as one HR Director told me recently, “When we looked at the data, over a third of current roles hadn’t existed just two years ago. So, what exactly were we planning for?”
- We deploy psychometric assessment tools to give us certainty in our hiring process. Over 2.5 million Myers Briggs tests are taken every year. Yet, numerous studies such as the one by Annie Murphy Paul in “The Cult of Personality Testing” suggest that “Most personality tests are seriously flawed, and sometimes unequivocally wrong…. They produce descriptions of people that are nothing like human beings as they actually are: complicated, contradictory, changeable across time and place.”
- Our performance management systems operate almost entirely on the basis of providing certainty where none exists; annual objectives that are often out of date by the first quarter, an end of year rating that attempts to summarise our entire year and our relative worth through a five-box scale and a completion rate for reviews that we can report to the board as evidence of performance being managed effectively.
- We go through the agonies of our annual engagement surveys to get to an overall engagement score – a number that is aggregated to such a high level that it cannot possibly give us any certainty about how our people think or feel.
- Our organisation charts, reporting lines and job descriptions attempt to provide clarity about how the company works but our real work is done in cross-functional teams that come together for brief periods and then disperse. The neatness of the org chart can’t keep up with the real world.
So, we try and help our organisations prepare for a disrupted world by providing reassurance that we can be certain. But we are not helping them. We are misleading them. And worse, we are not developing the culture, the mindsets and the approaches that will enable our people to thrive in an uncertain world.
HR can help create the conditions where we thrive in uncertainty
HR can make a valuable contribution to creating these conditions for success but not without a fundamental re-think in our approach. Instead of reinforcing an outmoded command and control culture through our policies and process, we can edge the organisation and our people to a culture where managers and employees are allowed and encouraged to ‘use good judgement’. Instead of detailed lists of competencies, we can focus on a small number of leadership attributes that provide for greater resilience in the face of uncertainty such as curiosity and humility. Instead of laborious annual processes for talent and performance we can stimulate frequent check-ins and regular talent conversations. Instead of trying to code what a ‘good employee’ looks like and assess against it, we can experiment with strength-based approaches that aim to discover how each individual can make a unique contribution and flexing to accommodate this. Instead of an annual engagement survey, we can deploy a range of methodologies, such as qualitative research and pulse sampling to understand who our people are and how they are thinking and feeling. We can help our leaders – not to appear omnipotent – but to show vulnerability and admit to not knowing.
Living with uncertainty is uncomfortable. It’s not a natural state that we enjoy. But the time for pretending is over. If we in HR start by acknowledging we don’t have the answers, that there is no road map, that our annual processes aren’t fit for the future, then maybe we can start to exploit some of the benefits that uncertainty might offer.