At Harvard Business School, Prof. Uma Karmakar wanted to learn what persuades people best. So, she conducted a study where she gave two groups of participants, two sets of reviews about a restaurant. One set of reviews were favorable and certain – the author (a food blogger) gave the restaurant 4 stars, and praised the quality of food, service, and ambience. In the second set, the author (a chef) though positive, expressed doubt/ ambiguity – “I don’t have complete confidence in my opinion, but I suppose I would give 4 stars.” Based on these reviews, which group do you think chose to go to the restaurant?

The most natural response – the first group that received the favorable review, because it seemed more informed and safe. But, in reality, it was actually group two that had a more positive attitude towards the restaurant, in spite of the ambiguous review.

What does this tell us about persuasion and motivation? Uncertainty or contradiction to previous opinions/ beliefs, plays a vital role. The reason: uncertainty draws us in. It causes us to pay more attention. All the more when experts like our leaders express ambiguity. We expect them to be certain. When they’re not, it’s surprising. Thus, we process their message carefully, as opposed to agreeing right away. Numerous studies have shown that as long as the arguments in a message are compelling, getting people to reflect on them enhances their impact.

Such insights are beneficial for leaders/ managers, if you have followers and teams that trust you. In situations where there’s a challenging organizational change – strategic shifts, team re-structuring or budget reallocations – sharing a message or belief that contradicts something you’ve shared before, can help in getting your employees to listen to you. Especially if you acknowledge that what you’re saying differs.

You could also use uncertainty to improve work accountability. In a series of studies conducted by researchers Larissa Tiedens and Susan Linton, it was found that people take more ownership of their work and put in more effort, when they experience emotions associated with uncertainty, like anxiety, worry, or surprise. This happens because instead of agreeing blindly to the work assigned, employees reflect on the uncertain emotions. Which in turn persuades them to create action plans and goals which better fit their working better. The message for leaders: help teams set goals that are beyond their comfort zone.

In all this, remember that anything in large doses does not yield the best results. Trust your experience to know when to replace uncertainty with assurance. And you’ll make a powerful case for your message.

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