Leadership Competencies

Pause, think and focus to win

In chaotic and fast-changing times, the lack of predictable behaviors in all areas of our life may not serve us well, says University of Maryland psychologist Arie Kruglanski — especially for people with a high need for certainty and closure.

Cognitive closure, or the desire to have a firm answer to a question combined with an aversion to ambiguity, is a basic need for the human brain. Our brain likes to travel well-worn pathways that are familiar to us. The intensity of this need varies from one person to another, but we all need some degree of certainty in our lives.

The more we perceive the world as being unpredictable, the more strongly we are drawn to certainty. When we feel stressed, our need for closure increases geometrically.

Yet, one of the defining characteristics of the 21st-century business environment is its unpredictability. And it’s only going to get worse, not better.

It seems our past is less predictive and our future less predictable than it has ever been.


Is your brain helping or hindering?

In today’s markets, change happens so quickly that by the time we make strategic decisions about how our companies will win, the information guiding those decisions is often outdated.

With unprecedented unpredictability, our need for certainty and closure skyrockets.

Yet, when faced with high levels of uncertainty, the human brain often acts in ways that do not support winning in business. These include:

  • Seeking out unambiguous information it feels comfortable with
  • Avoiding or rejecting information that challenges the status quo
  • Shutting down open dialogue about key business issues
  • Making stuff up (MSU) to fill in the gaps where reliable information isn’t available
  • Seeking quick, simple answers to complex problems in order to achieve closure

Not surprisingly, one of the biggest victims of these brain tendencies is innovation. When we crave certainty and closure, the last thing we want to hear is some new idea about how to change the way we work or add value to our customers.

If we look at companies that dominate their industries, innovation and openness to new ideas are almost always a fundamental part of their culture. Market leaders face the same levels of stress and uncertainty as market laggards, but they manage them differently.

Slow down to go fast

Okay, so we’re all stressed. We’re all seeking more certainty and predictability in our businesses. And the world refuses to cooperate. What do we do?


To keep up with the world’s frantic pace, we have trained ourselves to believe that we should be doing something. So we often end up running in any direction because doing feels comfortable and reassuring.

Pausing allows us to make sure we’re running in the right direction, and that the entire organization is aligned and running with us. 


Pausing also helps us realize that although the world may be going nuts, we’re not powerless over how we respond to it.

What we can do is learn more about how our brains react to stress and unpredictability, how that can lead us into making low-quality decisions, and what we can do to make better ones.

So we need to learn to think differently about how we process information and make decisions. Then think about where we stand in relation to our organization’s vision of winning.

  • Are we on track to reach the destination? If not, where did we jump the rails?
  • What do we need to do to get back on track?
  • What are the prevalent thoughts driving behaviors in our organization and how do we shift those to ones that will serve us well?


Winning in business requires focus — for ourselves and our organizations.

Start each morning by asking, “Of what I do today, what will get me/my team/the organization closer to winning?” Then organize your day around the tasks and activities that move you closer to your goals, while letting go of those that waste your time and attention. 

Once a month, set aside 15 to 30 minutes to review how well you are staying focused on a daily basis. Then write down what success looks like to you in the next 30 days. 

To keep the organization focused, make sure all employees know:

  • Their three primary objectives for the week/quarter/year
  • How they will have succeeded at the end of these periods
  • How their job responsibilities support the organization in reaching its destination

Our world may be driving to new levels of chaos and uncertainty, but that doesn’t have to get in the way of achieving our goals. By pausing, thinking and focusing, we can manage our innate need for certainty and closure in a way that doesn’t prevent us from winning.


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Category : Leadership Competencies

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About the Author: Holly Green

Holly is CEO of THE HUMAN FACTOR Inc., and guides leaders and their organizations in achieving greater success by teaching you to leverage your brain and the brains of others at work.An experienced bu…

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