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The Sin of Certainty

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Sep 29, 2020

The audit is nearing its end. There has been much meeting, interviewing, testing, and writing.

(Oh, has there been a lot of writing.) The so-close-as-to-be-indetectable-from-the-final version of the report has been sent to the client and you sit in his office waiting for the closing meeting to begin, anxious to make the department, the organization, and the world a better place. With great certainty you know everything is in order, good to go, locked and loaded. Your ducks are in a row, every "i" has been dotted, every "t" has been crossed, and the CAE's in his office and all's right with the world.

The department head — the individual responsible for agreeing with the inarguable — begins the meeting. Wait! What's this? He has the audacity to disagree with you?!!

Absolute certainty takes another victim.

Kathryn Schulz's book Being Wrong includes a chapter titled "The Allure of Certainty." (And, for those of you keeping track, yes, I've referred to this book before. But that just proves how good it is and that you should check it out.) She describes how human beings become certain of things, how that certainty embeds itself in our brains, and how such certainty then leads to a closemindedness that shuts down our ability to think critically.

We all understand that knowledge is gained through a constant flow of information. And we also understand that, even when we have gathered enough information to "know" something, that doesn't mean more information won't come to our attention, information that could adjust that knowledge. But certainty is the detrimental result of allowing ourselves to transition from having knowledge to believing that knowledge represents absolute truth.

As Schulz writes, "Our sense of certainty is kindled by the feeling of knowing — that inner sensation that something just is, with all the solidity and self-evidence suggested by that most basic of verbs." She goes on to say that certainty "is toxic to a shift in a perspective."

And certainty is a source of conflict. That's big for internal auditors because the nature of our work means we run into a lot of conflict. And the No. 1 way to fail in the resulting "conversations" is to be totally convinced of the certainty of our correctness. Maybe we're certain there is an issue, maybe we're certain the report is written correctly, maybe we're certain we have talked to the right people, or maybe we're certain we know how to do an internal audit. It doesn't matter what "thing" we are certain of; to be absolutely certain is to have shut down.

We must recognize we do not know everything. We may know a lot, but even one small piece of information provided by the client can change everything. Therefore, the success of every negotiation/every interview/every communication/every meeting must be based on the premise that, no matter how much we know, we don't know it all.

Further, we have to recognize that, just as we are certain of where we stand, those on the other side of the negotiating table are similarly certain of their correctness. Here is Schulz's view of the battle: 

The certainty of those with whom we disagree — whether the disagreement concerns who should run the country or who should run the dishwasher — never looks justified to us, and frequently looks odious. As often as not, we regard it as a sign of excessive emotional attachment to an idea, or an indicator of a narrow, fearful, or stubborn frame of mine. By contrast, we experience our own certainty as simply a side-effect of our rightness, justifiable because our cause is just. And, remarkably, despite our generally supple, imaginative, extrapolation-happy minds, we cannot transpose this scene. We cannot imagine, or do not care, that our own certainty, when seen from the outside, must look just as unbecoming and ill-grounded as the certainty we abhor in others.

A primary cause of negotiation breakdown is certainty versus certainty. Therefore, we must recognize our certainty and allow it to soften. And we must recognize that same certainty in others, working to move beyond certainty into an openness for accepting new information.

Ambrose Bierce said that certainty was "being mistaken at the top of one's voice." I've run into more than one client/auditee who was not only certain they were correct but felt the need to convey such certainty several decibels above normal. (And, unfortunately, I had at least one instance where the voice that was raised was mine.)

The key to successfully reducing the volume is to pull emotions out of the equation, and certainty is an emotion-based reaction. It does not mean that every discussion you have with everyone (on anything) will become calm, composed, and logical. But recognizing the impact of certainty will go a long way to making it better.

And one more thing, something that has nothing to do with internal audit. As we wend our way through these crazy, political times, keep the above in mind. I cannot be certain about what I know. And, if I am willing to approach a conversation with that attitude, then I'm more likely to break down the certainty of the individual with whom I'm speaking. And, at that point, the conversation becomes a real conversation, not just a shouting of platitudes.

Of that, I am certain.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.