Obsessive Certainty Disorder

Sonja Blignaut diagnoses the syndrome that plagues many organizations, crushing curiosity.

I came across a great post, How organisational OCD is stamping out innovation and agility by Sonja Blignaut, who I had not known about previously. She writes:

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a debiliatating anxiety disorder that can have devastating consequences for the individual that suffers from it.

I think there is a similar disorder that organisations suffer from … I call is Obsessive Certainty Disorder. It too is linked with anxiety and the need for control. And it too has devastating consequences, especially when it comes to organisational responsiveness and innovation.

Diagnosis may be easier than a course of treatment, however.

The key things organisations need in order to enable creativity are the very things they typically work really hard to get rid of.

For example; organisations value certainty and stability so they remove tension, paradox, risk. They want answers, not questions; compliance and conformity, not curiosity. They optimise for efficiency and thereby remove slack, boredom and play.

Leaders say they want transformation, engagement, innovation, creativity and agility … but their actions and the environments they create say otherwise: that they value the status quo, sameness, safety, certainty, busyness and consensus. Ambiguity isn’t tolerated, things must be black or white, no grey.

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Here is the problem: creativity and innovation often lie on the other side of discomfort – in the midst of ambiguity, uncertainty, tension and risk. Or on the other side of the so-called “inappropriate or silly” – in imagination, play and serendipity. Neither of these is welcome in our serious and sterile (but stable) work environments.

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It’s ironic that in a world where most CEO’s list innovation as a top priority, they do their best to rid their organisations of the conditions that could actually unleash the creativity of their people.

I’ll point out that all the behaviors that OCD stamps out are those of the curious.

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In 10 Work Skills for the Postnormal Era, my most read article (now over 29,000 hits at Medium, although moved here, now), I offered up these skills:

About curiosity I wrote:

In a world that is constantly in flux, dominated by a cascade of technological, sociological, and economic change, the temptation may be to shut our eyes and close our ears. However, the appropriate response is to remain flexible, adaptable, and responsive: and the only hope for that is a boundless curiosity.

Our educational system and business culture work hard to ‘suppress our natural tendency to be curious’, as Jamie Notter said. Messing around beyond the frontiers of the conventional can lead to dangerous ideas, which are generally stamped out as quickly as possible.

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Blignaut cites Francesca Gino on curiosity, who wrote:

In most organizations, leaders and employees alike receive the implicit message that asking questions is an unwanted challenge to authority. They are trained to focus on their work without looking closely at the process or their overall goals. But maintaining a sense of wonder is crucial to creativity and innovation. The most effective leaders look for ways to nurture their employees’ curiosity to fuel learning and discovery.

But they don’t, very often. Todd Kashdan and his colleagues offer this:

Leaders often think that letting employees follow their curiosity will lead to a costly mess. In a recent survey I conducted of 520 chief learning officers and chief talent development officers, I found that they often shy away from encouraging curiosity because they believe the company would be harder to manage if people were allowed to explore their own interests. They also believe that disagreements would arise and making and executing decisions would slow down, raising the cost of doing business. Research finds that although people list creativity as a goal, they frequently reject creative ideas when actually presented with them. That’s understandable: Exploration often involves questioning the status quo and doesn’t always produce useful information. But it also means not settling for the first possible solution—and so it often yields better remedies.

In an earlier article, Kashdan and a different group of researchers offered some strong medicine. They developed a model of curiosity and determined that three factors correlate with curiosity, which read like guidelines for a company to create more curious staff:

  • Autonomy — Curiosity increases in the context of encouragement, information, and choice. Threats, punishment, surveillance, and negative feedback all decrease curiosity.

  • Competence — Curiosity is enhanced when events lead people to believe they can interact effectively with the environment, or when events give them the desire to do so. Sincere praise also affects curiosity postitively.

  • Relatedness — Feeling connected to others and believing your emotional experiences are acknowledged increases curiosity in work, athletic, and academic environments. Feeling safe and comfortable also has a positive impact.

Now, all we have to do is get business leaders to swallow that pill and counter the innate tendency toward obsessive certainty disorder.


I think skill 4. constructive uncertainty is also implicated in the discussion of OCD, so you might want to check it out.