Why Certainty is Necessary in an Uncertain World

Trend #1: 68% of employees would consider leaving their job if they didn’t feel supported by more senior employees. 

Trend #2: 63% of employees wouldn’t accept a job without first knowing that the organization is actively inclusive of women, minorities and people with disabilities. 

These are just two of the trends that the office supply company Staples found in their 2019 Workplace Survey that’s been widely published. These results, according to Staples, reinforce the belief that the workforce is any organization’s most important asset. In order to succeed and compete, employers must invest the time to understand and nurture their employees.

Our Human Workplace Needs model is one way to do just that. 

The 6 Human Workplace Needs

As a quick reminder, here’s an overview of our Human Workplace Needs model. 

The 4 Core Needs — needs that all people seek 

  • Connection with people
  • Contributions are valued
  • Certainty as a result of safety
  • Clarity on the what and how

The 2 Fulfillment Needs — needs that result in meaningful and purpose-driven work 

  • Challenge and growth 
  • Community impact 

In this post, we’ll explore the third core need — certainty — in more depth so that you have a better understanding of what certainty in the workplace really means, what drives people to seek certainty, and how you can create certainty in a way that elevates team member performance, engagement and commitment. 

What is Certainty? 

Certainty is the outcome of a safe environment — psychological safety, that is. 

And psychological safety is the interpersonal trust and respect among people at work that allows them to take social risks. Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard first introduced the construct of “team psychological safety” and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” 

Interpersonal and social risk taking in a team environment is doing things such as: 

  • Expressing opinions when those opinions are different from the way the group currently thinks. 
  • Sharing ideas instead of simply moving to analysis. 
  • Making a decision in the face of conflicting information. 
  • Asking for cross-functional help when complexity increases. 
  • Admitting a mistake. 
  • Offering an apology. 

Amy Edmondson clearly describes psychological safety as a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up about ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. And we’ve all seen or heard of people being punished or humiliated in the workplace at sometime in our careers. 

When people feel safe, creativity thrives. New ideas emerge. And that safety allows for a human being’s unique ideas and perspectives to shine through. 

But this isn’t just about being soft and making people feel good. In a world of increasing complexity, where reliance on cross-functional teams and experimentation will be the norm, certainty in the workplace will be the foundation for those diverse teams to work effectively together.  

Without psychological safety, there isn’t certainty. And without certainty, people become reluctant. They do things like: 

  • Defer to their managers to solve problems for them. 
  • Hesitate to bring up tough issues or business challenges. 
  • Use protective language out of fear to manage what they say and how they say it.
  • Assess their manager’s mood before deciding to share the truth about the business.

As you may know, Google has done a ton of research with their Project Oxygen initiative around the characteristics that Googlers value in their managers. In their research related to teams, psychological safety was by far the most important characteristic of effective teams that their researchers identified. The Google researchers found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety were less likely to leave Google; more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates; bring in more revenue; and more likely to be rated as “effective” by executives. 

Is it safe on your team? Do people have the certainty they need to bring out their best in their performance? 

The Fear Behind Certainty

I was recently facilitating our Team Acceleration program with an executive team and discussing the important topic of productive conflict. We were exploring how each team member approached conflict, when one of the leaders said, “I never got in trouble for keeping my mouth shut.” 


Not exactly the most effective approach to executive leadership. 

When people don’t find certainty in the workplace, several fears emerge that have the potential to drive ineffective behavior. They show up differently for different people, depending on life experiences and personality. Some of the most common fears we hear related to certainty are: 

Does he or she like me?” (disapproval)

How am I doing compared to her?” (comparison to others)

“Will I lose my job for speaking up?” (fear of loss)

Regardless of how these fears show up, they usually boil down to one core fear: “Am I safe?” 

When team members operate out of fear, it becomes much more difficult to navigate the complexity and constant change in the workplace. Issues simmer under the surface, meetings after the meeting occur. And decisions get revisited over and over and over again. And on top of it all, people feel dissatisfied in their roles. 

But when we create a psychologically safe environment, where team members feel a sense of certainty, everything becomes possible. Leaders are able to tap into the beautiful gifts that people bring to work. People are able to have the conversations that matter most—for the organization, the team and individuals. Teams are able to create an environment where vulnerability-based trust flourishes and productive conflict is the norm. 

Certainty, the third component of our Human Workplace Needs model, helps accelerate all of the other core human needsconnection with people, contributions are valued, and clarity on the what and how. 

How Leaders Can Create Certainty

There are several ways in which leaders can create certainty in the workplace. We’ve compartmentalized them below into three key areas: mindset, skillset and daily habits. 

  1. Mindset 

The first thing leaders have to do to build certainty in the workplace is to recognize that leading from fear is an outdated approach. Back to Amy Edmonson’s work at Harvard— research in neuroscience shows that fear consumes cognitive resources, diverting them from parts of the brain that process new information. When we experience fear, we are less able to engage in analytic thinking, creative insight and problem solving. In short, it’s hard for people to do their best work when they are afraid.

The mindset shift for leaders is the following:  

  • From — people will be motivated when they fear me, the situation or the environment. 
  • To — people will be motivated when they feel safe around me, the situation or the environment. 
  1. Skillset

Similar to the skills needed in the second human workplace need of contributions are valued, leaders who build certainty in the workplace have the people skills to build trust in their teams. They create an environment of open communication in meetings, 1-1s and other settings. They know how to build vulnerability-based trust, where people can take interpersonal risks knowing that those risks will not result in punishment or humiliation. 

  1. Daily Habits

A leader’s mindset and skillset are always demonstrated through what they do on a day-to-day basis. Some examples of daily habits that create certainty include: 

  • Giving permission to engage in productive and healthy conflict. 
  • Rewarding team members when they take interpersonal risks. 
  • Creating team agreements that define how people will work together, engage in conflict, make decisions and hold each other accountable. 
  • Providing meeting agendas and pre-reads in advance so that people have time to process and prepare and can engage in lively dialogue during meetings. 

In a recent episode of my podcast Sal Silvester on the Future of Leadership, I make a distinction between how people need to think in a predictable versus an unpredictable environment. In a predictable environment, we can rely on our own or others expertise to solve the most pressing problems. Cause and effect are known. In an unpredictable environment, cause and effect are unknown and can only be discovered after experimenting in iterative cycles. It’s a completely different way of thinking, and with increasing complexity in our work and our world, it will be an important shift for leaders to make. 

That said, without creating an environment with certainty, people will be reluctant to experiment, making some of our most complex business challenges unsolvable.  

Create Certainty Yourself

You don’t have to rely on others (your manager, your organization) to create certainty. You already have everything within you to get this need met in your own life. 

As with all of the other human workplace needs, ask yourself first about the stories you tell yourself that are impacting your behaviors. Are you more fearful of losing something instead of winning together? Are you seeking validation from others, when you are already empowered to act? Are you spending time ruminating on how you compare with others? Are you concerned about speaking up for fear of losing credibility and/or standing in your role? 

Secondly, look at the external environment. Is it a good fit for what you want in your life both at work and at home? Does it support your best work? Does it bring out the best in you? Does it give or take away your energy? 

Thirdly, take small, but meaningful, steps to create certainty:

  • Identify what you can change, and focus on that. 
  • Define what type of environment and culture brings out your best work. 
  • Build trust with people around you — first by being credible and reliable, then by being open and transparent.  
  • Align your work with cross-functional teams, especially where there are competing priorities. 
  • Take some interpersonal risks — share your voice, advocate for your point of view.

Create Safety, Experience Certainty 

Back to the workplace and culture research from Staples that I shared earlier. If 68% of your employees might consider leaving their job if they don’t feel supported by more senior employees, creating a sense of certainty might help in keeping your best team members around. 

If you are looking to build more certainty in your organizational culture that enables the most complex business challenges to be solved, check out our leadership development and team acceleration services. We can help your organization get there faster.

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