Being Certain of Uncertainty

Much is written on how we make decisions. Uncertainty is uncomfortable—our brains are hard-wired to avoid it as much as possible. Certainty, however, can be elusive. To avoid uncertainty and make the best decisions, we often turn to experts.

Recent research out of Stanford Business School indicates the most compelling experts aren’t necessarily the most certain. In a series of studies, experts were asked to share their opinions on several different topics and to vary the certainty with which they expressed their views. Results showed that the experts who were rated most persuasive were those who expressed minor doubts, not total certainty, about their advice and opinions. They seemed even more persuasive if the situation or topic had no clear or obvious answer.
According to researchers, it is precisely because we expect experts to be certain of their opinions that we find them more intriguing when they express uncertainty. As a result, expressions of uncertainty can be highly persuasive. Or as Nobel Prize winner Andre Gide put it, “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”
What is the application to the workplace? To be more persuasive with colleagues, leaders, and business partners, don’t shy away from expressing uncertainty about your own opinions. When the case is already a strong one, this may not be a sign of weakness after all.