Inconsistency vs uncertainty

I would much rather deal with uncertainty than inconsistency—in the short term, at least[1].

Uncertainty is, in simplest terms, not knowing. You can start to append attributes like probability and subjectivity and so on[2], but "not knowing" is good enough. Recognized uncertainty is certain—you know what you don't know. As a result, when faced with a situation that I don't really understand, it's possible to feel comfortable. Internal tension is low—the situation is unknown, and this squares with expectations.

Segue: There is no substitute for a good I don't know. This is important in leadership. It's unfair and unreasonable to expect a leader to have all of the answers; it's unfair and unreasonable for a leader to behave as if they have all of the answers. I don't know. Smells like weakness. But that's just pride. I don't know.

Saying I know when you don't leads to inconsistency in direction—something that is excusable in a fool-me-once kind of way, but eventually signals unreliability and, ironically, more weakness than just admitting to the fact.

Where do we go?

I know. [Order #1]

[gets to work]

I know. [Order #2. Inconsistent and contradictory to Order #1]

OK so we'll go that way then, but that seems a little off.

Actually it isn't off, it's just that you don't understand the nuances. I know. [Order #3. Contains elements of Order #1 and Order #2, with fresh inconsistencies]

Now it appears that we're back at the starting line, heading backwards. I'm not sure that

I'm in charge here, OK. I know. [Order #4...]

Enough. For want of someone nailing down what they know and don't know the initiative was lost.

A needlessly complicated definition of inconsistency might be: oscillating aggregated uncertainty over time. The first direction is certain—or at least appears to be so. The second direction is issued in a certain tone and gives off a smell of subjective certainty—but the contradiction betrays objective uncertainty. And on and on.

Too many words. If you don't know, say so. If the situation changes and a new direction inconsistent with the prior is needed, explain it and move on. The difference between uncertainty and inconsistency is frustration and loss of trust.


[1] In the long term, inconsistency and change can be a virtue—examine the paths you take every day and decide for yourself if it's a principle or a rut. See also:
Mark Twain. "Party Allegiance: Being a Portion of a Paper on 'Consistency' Read Before the Monday Evening Club in 1887". The Writings of Mark Twain, Volume 33https://books.google.com/books?id=6gk3yAvhzD8C&pg=PA1653

[2] Come for the discussion about knowledge; stay for the igloo of uncertainty.
Tannert, Christof, Horst‐Dietrich Elvers, and Burkhard Jandrig. "The ethics of uncertainty." EMBO reports 8.10 (2007): 892-896. https://dx.doi.org/10.1038%2Fsj.embor.7401072.

Some other things that seemed interesting (the first one has been cited over 10,000 times) but I haven't read yet, but to maintain overall behavioral consistency I'll just pass them along with a look-how-smart-I-am-I-brought-papers wink:

  • Kydland, Finn E., and Edward C. Prescott. "Rules rather than discretion: The inconsistency of optimal plans." Journal of political economy 85.3 (1977): 473-491. https://doi.org/10.1086/260580 (pdf)
  • Hsee, Christopher K., et al. "Lay rationalism and inconsistency between predicted experience and decision." Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 16.4 (2003): 257-272. https://doi.org/10.1002/bdm.445 (pdf)

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