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Posted by on May 20, 2010

The Importance of Certainty and Autonomy in Leadership

If given a choice, research in the field of neuroscience shows that people are willing to bet on risky outcomes over ambiguous ones. The lack of uncertainty prevents people from stepping into situations that hold unclear outcomes; therefore, people demonstrate ‘away’ behavior such as retreat or withdrawal to move to a place of safety and security. The ‘knowing’ or awareness of some details in a risky situation is enough of a factor to influence ‘toward’ behavior. Given that leaders are responsible for leading change or working on a myriad of projects that don’t always have a clear-cut path to a desired outcome; leaders create situations fraught with risk and ambiguity.
Simply by giving people choice in situations that are risky will increase the likelihood of action in the direction of accomplishing the change or meeting the requirements of the project. Choice, offers a sense of autonomy which leads to a feeling of reward…a feeling of control in their destiny enables people to feel more at ease in the accomplishment of tasks in their organizations and therefore stimulate the reward center of their brain’s to initiate ‘toward’ or welcoming behavior.
Every organization is faced with developing strategies to effectively deal with a changing economy. I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that talked about research that had been conducted over an 18-year period on organizations that laid people off and organizations that selectively cut costs, but did not make drastic lay-offs during a prior recession. The long-term effects of organizations that over reacted to the down turn in the economy by drastically cutting staff with lay-offs suffered for the next ten years. They experienced minimal profits and growth as they could not rebound from the loss of talent and they struggled with efforts to hire replacement staff to make up for the loss of talent. Former workers, potential talent who had experienced the imposed changes of being streamlined with a pink slip, weren’t as eager to rejoin an organization that left them out in the cold…a bitter pill of uncertainty and very real threat to their survival! They voted with their feet and joined other organizations that provided some sense of certainty for their futures.
The organizations that demonstrated a level headed approach to keep their talent and avoid drastic moves, tended to reap greater rewards during the same period after the down turn. These organizations experienced abundant growth in profits, as they were able to keep up with the trends of economical growth without missing a beat while putting in play their long-term strategies. They had retained their talent and were able to adjust quickly and seamlessly to the increased customer demands and product development requirements.
The lack of certainty among staff within organizations demonstrated by the leadership in these organizations that made drastic moves in staff adjustments, created chaos and threatened the very people who made up their organizations; it put people in a heightened state of fear and discomfort. There was no autonomy and most certainly gross uncertainty. The sense of certainty offered in the other organizations, gave them a feeling of autonomy through the challenging times and helped them to effectively handle the challenges associated with the recession.
Leadership has a responsibility to reduce or eliminate the ambiguity within their organizations by providing tactical and strategic plans, goals, and vision for how they will continue to stay in business. Communicating that there is ‘risk’ in how the organizational leadership will deal with a downturn still provides a sense of hope for people. A realistic portrayal of the business status communicated to the staff will generate greater buy in and ownership for the transition and outcomes, not forced compliance in darkness of not knowing and a perceived sinking of the ship. Leadership has a responsibility to communicate truth, often and consistently. Being transparent provides needed certainty, even if the news is less than ideal. How informed are your people and what will you do to lessen the burden of uncertainty and increase autonomy in your organization?

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