The Certainty Conundrum

As a Project Manager, most of your professional life centers on change. Think about it. Projects are all about change. Whether change in process, change in business practices, or new products and services. Everything you do is centered around change.

But think about this for a moment. All human beings seek certainty in our lives. We’re wired for it. In fact, the brain craves certainty – it is a certainty-seeking organism. It looks for patterns, sameness, and routine in everything we do. And, as soon as change is introduced, something happens.

I have a few questions for you to consider. When you’re working on a new project, how well do you handle uncertainty? As important project milestones approach, how do you deal with the uncertainty of whether it will come together as planned? And maybe more importantly, what can you do when you are face to face with that uncertainty?

In coaching, there is a truth I face with many of my clients on a consistent basis. That is, in many cases people would rather die than change. Sounds harsh, I know. But how willing are you to change your habits of emotion, your habits of interacting with others, your daily habits that you’ve become accustomed to over a number of years? Even when we know those habits to be counterproductive, we still are reluctant to change them. It’s all about certainty – or as we hear, it’s the devil you know versus the devil you don’t.

A sense of uncertainty can actually trigger a response in our amygdale – the emotional core of the brain, which in turn triggers a response in the limbic system. And, sometimes it can feel as though we’re out of control. Uncertainty is like an inability to create a complete map of a situation, and with parts missing, you’re not as comfortable as when the map is complete.

It can actually feel like a threat. The brain likes to know what is going on. It likes to feel “certain.” When it doesn’t, we experience what is known as an away from response. That means we feel compelled to move away from the specific experience in an effort to avoid pain. And thus we experience the conundrum of seeking certainty in an uncertain world.

I work with organizational leaders and project managers to help them learn to deal with and accept more uncertainty in their work and lives. The ability to do so can produce impressive results and can even be the difference between success and, well, something less. If we are to become truly great leaders, the way we deal with this uncertainty is going be a critical component of our growth.

Certainty is one of what I call the “6 Basic Human Needs.” And it’s a powerful need, at that. Certainty means we all want to feel safe, to avoid pain, and feel comfortable in our environment. Every individual needs some sense of certainty and security – knowing that our basic needs are being met.

Please understand when I talk about these basic human needs, I’m not talking about simple wants or desires, but profound needs that all human beings have. When those needs aren’t met, or when they are met in low quality ways, the overall quality of a person’s life is deeply affected.

When it comes to seeking certainty, there are things we can do that will help us feel more certain. It really comes down to an internal knowing, or feeling, that things will work out as we desire. In sales, the saying goes, “The one with the most certainty, wins.” It simply means that the one who can create within himself or herself that sense of absolute certainty, is going to sound and act more convincingly. So how do you apply that to what you do every day in working on your project teams?

If you’re coming up on a critical path milestone in a project, and feeling a sense of dread about whether things are going to come together, then think about your past successes. Why? Because focusing on these positive outcomes will create within you a sense of “Hey, we can do this.” Building on that past success can literally help generate a stronger feeling of certainty when it comes to your present situation.

After all, certainty and uncertainty alike are internal processes – a feeling, if you will. And you are in control of that. You can generate within yourself a sense of certainty and counteract the fear and anxiety that can come with uncertainty. It doesn’t happen overnight. You get to practice it. But, you’ve already been practicing all your other emotional responses throughout your life. It’s time to practice something that will actually help you to be more effective in your work and life.


Kevin Ciccotti, CPCC, ACC, has been a student of peak performance, interpersonal communication, and human behavior for more than 25 years. He was trained at The Coaches Training Institute, the world’s largest in-person coach training organization. Kevin also trained with the Robbins-Madanes Center for Strategic Intervention, founded by world-renowned human performance experts Anthony Robbins and Psychotherapist Cloe Madanes. He is certified by both CTI and the ICF, and adheres to the highest of ethical standards in the coaching industry, and in 2012 was named President of the Nevada Professional Coaches Association.

Prior to founding his company in 2008, Kevin worked for a world-class manufacturing organization for 25 years. He held a variety of positions, culminating with 16 years in management within the Product Development Organization for his company. In that time, he worked on hundreds of cross-functional projects, working on new product development from concept through to end of lifecycle. He also served as a Business Process Owner for the company’s largest-ever project – a 3+ year, $65 million ERP implementation. Kevin’s experiences make him uniquely qualified to serve the Project Management profession, and provide him with a rich background on which to build his programs.

Kevin has spoken at a number of conferences and events, including the 2012 PMI Global Congress, the 2011 PMI Region 7 Leadership Summit, and numerous PMI Chapter Dinners and events in the Western US. He has led multiple worldwide webinars for various PMI Communities of Practice. He has also created a daylong workshop titled the “The Human Factor in Project Management” and has taught it for the SF Bay Area PMI Chapter, as well as for various corporations he has been contracted to work with as a Coach and Trainer. He is also an adjunct instructor for the University of Nevada, Reno, Department of Extended Studies, in their Project Management Program, where he teaches his workshop in a two-day classroom format.

Kevin currently writes articles and newsletters that are published in PMI publications and blogs, including the Silicon Valley PM Blog, and the SF Bay Area PMI Newsletter.


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