It happened every time. Whenever we had to ask our production control coordinator if materials from another manufacturing department would arrive on time for us to start the next job, he would hedge.
"I think it's possible they might," he would say.
"How possible?" we would ask. Since we were evaluated on productivity, the last thing we wanted was to waste time setting up for a job only to find out we couldn't run it.
"Well, while I could be wrong," he would say, "I do think there's a chance that job will be ready."
Granted, we understood why he hedged. When "just-in-time" involves minutes, accurately predicting small upstream delays is tough.
Plus, he clearly felt hedging gave him an out. Saying "absolutely," and then turning out to be wrong? Tossing in "might" or "could" or "possibly," or using "I think" instead of "I'm sure," would protect his reputation if he turned out to be wrong.
According to a 2020 study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology, hedging -- using words that soften a position we take -- doesn't protect your reputation. Qualify all you want, but wrong is still wrong.
As the researchers write:
We explore suggestions (whether) speakers can protect themselves by hedging with weaker propositional attitudes ("I suspect that ... ") and so-called double hedges ("I might be wrong, but I think ... ").
We find ... no clear evidence for a protective effect.
Double-hedging is throwing in two modifiers: like, "I think it is possible." Or, "I suspect that he might." (Then there's the multiple-hedge: "I think it might be somewhat likely that we could face the potential risk of possibly ending the quarter somewhat shy of projections." Tell me you don't know at least one person who talks that way.)
The researchers found that no amount of hedging protects your reputation.
So what should you do if you need to take a position, but aren't quite sure?
Say you aren't sure, and then explain why you aren't sure.
Our production control coordinator could have said, "It's possible, but I'm not sure. The press is down, and they predict it will be running in 15 minutes. If that happens, you're good. But if it takes more than 30 minutes, you'll either have to hold the line or skip that job and run it later."
That's not hedging. That's information: information that protects reputations by turning "I think" into "Here's what I do know." Which then lets other people make their own predictions, and decisions, based on what they know.
The takeaway? Stop hedging. If you believe something, don't say, "I believe." Just say what you believe. If you think something, don't say, "I think." Just say what you think.
Stop saying, "I think we should proceed." Say, "Let's proceed." Stop saying, "I suspect there's a problem we might be missing." Say, "We're missing something."
And if you aren't sure? Being in charge doesn't mean you have to have all the answers. Say, "I'm not sure," explain why you're not sure, and then ask for input.
Bottom line? Hedging won't make you seem less wrong. Nor will hedging protect your reputation.
All it does is make you sound less decisive.
Which is the last thing you want to sound when you feel strongly -- on the basis of data, experience, and thoughtful analysis -- that you are right.