Engaging with a complex phenomenon is quite challenging experience. It is even more challenging for leaders and managers who are required to do something about these problems. Markets, shareholders and employees look to leaders for guidance and sound decision-making in navigating complexity. It is because of this that leaders need to keep their wits about them. Being aware of the emotional and psychological responses one has to a complex problem is a critical leadership capability.
One of the common responses we see from leaders who face up to complex challenges is a very subtle one. It is rooted in the human need for information and certainty in uncertain contexts i.e. the need to explain what is happening.
The ability to explain what is happening is an extension of the need to understand a situation. An explanation builds on levels of understanding by adding some rationality and closure to the uncertainties inherent in the situation. It is in this moment of needing to explain the complexity that many leaders make a mistake – they fall into the temptation to ‘explain away’ the uncertainty and seeming disorder implicit in the complexity.
There is a very fine line between attempting to explain the complexity you’re engaging with and explaining it away.
Explaining away the complexity is precipitated by the psyche’s discomfort with high levels of uncertainty. Neuroscience has helped us understand recently that the connections in the brain create ‘away states’ when we encounter situations that challenge our need for status, certainty and autonomy, to name a few. Encountering the uncertainty of a complex phenomenon thus naturally predisposes us to the temptation to minimise the levels of uncertainty. The ‘away’ state is manifest in the desire to explain away the uncertainty.
Reductionist tendencies are also a problem in this context. Again, levels of uncertainty are minimised by compartmentalising and categorising new contexts against old categories and simple hypotheses of what is really going on in this new situation.
So, be careful of the quick and comforting answers that pop up in your mind when you engage with a complex organisational issue. The speed at which you can create a plausible explanation may be indicative of your deep desire to explain away the uncertainty than rather dealing with it meaningfully.