A critical aspect of team leadership: The vocabulary

How a slight change in our language can have a considerable effect. Why should you ask about the level of confidence instead of certainty?

Scrabble letters displaying the text: "Choose Your Words"
Photo by Brett Jordan / Unsplash

There is a difference between asking for certainty and confidence, even though they are synonyms. However, by swapping those words, I'm confident we will get different results. Granted, it's not a certainty. 😆

Below are examples of answers to questions that involve certainty. Often the answers to those questions attempt to be objective.

  • Q: “How certain are you it will rain?”
    A: “I checked the weather app.”
  • Q: “How certain are you that this will fix the bug?”
    A: “The bug is marked as solved because I could no longer reproduce it.”
  • Q: “How certain are you that it will take 3 hours to complete?”
    A: “The 3 hours is a best-case estimate. The worst-case estimate is around 30 hours.”

But confidence questions are slightly different. For starters, they are not asking for factual answers; they are asking how people feel about something. It generates a more emotional response.

  • Q: “How confident are you that it will rain?”
    A: “The weather app has been right before.”
  • Q: “How confident are you that this will fix the bug?”
    A: “I hope it does, but I encountered many more issues in the code.”
  • Q: “How confident are you that it will take 3 hours to complete?”
    A: “The last feature we developed in that area triggered an avalanche of bugs.”

Each answer referred to something else that might impact the confidence. This is additional information that we are not looking for but might uncover challenges that leadership is unaware of. It’s uncommon for people to reply with a measured answer except in two scenarios: When they are 100% certain or unsure.

Indeed, the questions and answers can be swapped, but we are looking for how people will initially respond. Some people provide more insight when asked about certainty, while others provide more insight when asked about confidence. Below are more anecdotal examples of how the behavior changed by changing a single word.

Other examples

When leading meetings, I continually experimented to see what could be improved. One experiment aimed to determine how the response to my last question could be improved. There were two versions:

  • “Are we certain we have covered everything?”
  • “Are we confident we have covered everything?”

Although I asked for the same feedback, the participants' behavior differed. When asked about certainty, they would look at the agenda and check if anything communicated upfront was skipped. An act that was only useful if the entire meeting had gone sideways.

But when asked about confidence, they would look at one another and mention things that had recently occurred that might require additional attention. This provided me with further insight, allowing me to decide to address any issues I might have missed.

The same happened when I asked about estimates. When asked about certainty, they would either respond with “yes” or “no.” Worse, they often argue that estimates can never be accurate, to which I would reply that estimates are always an approximation and never exact. When I asked how confident they were about their estimates, they would express the areas in which they were unsure.

Another great example is when a developer starts their reply with “It's done but...” when we confront them about the state of a task we thought was done but not ready to be delivered. The problem was that I asked, “Is the feature complete” when I should have asked, “Can the feature be delivered, and will it spark joy?”.

For some developers, a feature is considered complete when it works on “their machine,” while as leaders, we consider a feature complete when we expect no additional work for said feature.

My final advice

The above examples are anecdotal, but ask any language expert, and they will explain that our choice of words matters. Or, as I like to say, “The wrong question is likely to give you the wrong answer. So ask the right question.

So change your language if you don't get the answer you need. The results I got by simply replacing “certainty” with “confidence” was surprising, but I’m confident those are not the only examples we can think of. Are we sure we can’t think of more examples? 😉