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The Persuasive Power of Uncertainty

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Certainty is a funny thing, at least when it comes to CEO influence. Have too much of it, and executives risk being perceived as all-knowing rulers, largely immune to the interests and concerns of their underlings. Too little, and a CEO starts to lose the confidence of his most trusted employees; those who help shepherd his or her ideas along the conveyor belt of managerial instructions.

But what lies in between? Is there a happy medium where a good dose of executive confidence meets an equally humble level of uncertainty? Can CEOs express doubt in their communications without losing employees’ confidence?

A recent research study by Stanford marketing professor Zakary Tormala appears to have found the answer. And his findings might surprise you . . .

As Tormala reports in the March issue of Harvard Business Review and in an excellent HBR podcast, when experts express uncertainty about their opinions, people find them more compelling. By “experts,” he’s not just talking about that guy who writes film reviews for your local weekly newspaper. He means experts of all stripes, including CEOs and senior-level executives; the very people whom many perceive to be the top authority in their professional fields.

An eye-opening, turns-your-notion-of-expertise-on-its-head type of study, no doubt.

The research raises an intriguing question as to whether humility, and the subtle use by CEOs of an unexpected level of uncertainty in their communications, will lead to an era of greater influence and authenticity for executives. Perhaps. Like many aspects of management, however, far more variables are in play when considering what makes for compelling, influential and credible CEOs.

When asked if CEOs should project uncertainty about their firms’ prospects in order to increase their influence, Tormala said:

It would definitely make your ears perk up if a CEO expressed uncertainty about the business. But closer attention doesn’t always lead to more persuasion. … If what you’re saying is not compelling, it could backfire.

This research likely will not lead to a mass rewrite of corporate communications textbooks. When used sparingly and at an appropriate moment, though, uncertainty can be a powerfully persuasive tactic for executives. Fans of Nokia CEO Stephon Elop’s skillfully-written “burning platform” memo can attest to the derived benefits when CEOs wisely use uncertainty to recalibrate their business’ future.

The research also is in line with some key findings of this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer. That report found that trust in American businesses has dropped significantly, to 46 percent, slightly above last-place Russia. Conversely, trust in CEOs, both in America and globally, is on the rise — up to more than 50 percent in global markets.

Perhaps one of the key ingredients for increasing CEO influence is to actually tone down the prevailing use of overly-confidential rhetoric and replace it with more humble assessments of where a business stands and how it hopes to grow. Transparency and honesty go a long way in building trust.

Taking a page from the Stanford study, I’m a little uncertain what all this means for public relations and the CEOs we counsel. What do you think?

Rosanna Fiske, APR, is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

About the author

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the Vice President of Corporate Communications at Wells Fargo & Company, Florida. Fiske was PRSA's Chair and CEO in 2011.

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