Why embracing doubt can improve your decision making

Admitting you're not infallible is a valuable first step.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 22 Jul 2019

There’s an expectation that chief executives should display confidence, lead with certainty and be able to quickly execute decisions that protect the business and its stakeholders. 

Admitting that sometimes you’re wrong, or that you don’t always have the answers, can seem to be at odds with this ideal. But in today’s uncertain world of economic volatility, trade embargos and digital disruption, only the most delusional of leader would say they’ve never questioned whether they’re making the right call. 

Doubt is inevitable, and successful leaders learn to embrace it. Uncertainty doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t know your stuff or that you’re overly anxious, it may just mean that you’re questioning your own decision-making - and that can only be a good thing - says Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London. 

In fact, thanks to ingrained cognitive biases, such as the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognize their own incompetence, we’re not always as good at perceiving the world around us as we think. The ability to question your own and other people’s decision-making therefore - regardless of talent and track record - is an imperative leadership skill. 

There’s always time to stop and think

In the fast-paced world of the fourth industrial revolution, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking there’s little time to stop and think. Of course leaders need to find the right balance between fast and considered decision-making but, says Briner, in reality if you’re diligent, and forecast with sufficient distance, there should rarely be a decision that requires an immediate yes or no.

As well as time, managing doubt is about transparency, he says. "You wouldn’t necessarily trust your doctor if they came to a split-second diagnosis without consulting your records or other notes."

If you’re stumped, say why. If you’re delaying a decision because you want more facts, say so; don’t simply try and dress it up with the facade of corporate sensitivity. Transparent leaders are authentic, and authenticity breeds trust. 

Manage doubt in others

Rather than pretending that uncertainty doesn’t exist, leaders need to focus on fostering an environment that makes it okay for people to express doubt freely. But while learning to embrace your own self-doubt is one thing, how do you prevent excess doubt from setting into the organisation or holding your team back? 

Defining the difference between doubt and cynicism is important says Briner. If staff are cynical about a wellbeing programme, corporate turnaround or sales strategy, it’s unlikely that they will ever get on board.

Those people that are easy to dismiss as noisy troublemakers, however, can actually be some of the most valuable people in the organisation - what might seem like resistance might actually be the raising of legitimate concerns that they see because they’re on the front line.

"The great cliche of this is that it’s actually about having a conversation," says Briner. If people raise concerns or push back, it’s important not to ignore them.


Image credits:  Nora Carol Photography/Getty images

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