The Power of Doubt

We tend to think of ‘doubt’ as something vaguely uncomfortable and often undesirable. Doubt can be confusing and disturbing – something we experience viscerally when we are led to doubt what our colleagues or friends are telling us. And doubting ourselves can be draining – it can sap our will to move ahead with things that have to be done. But it is worth pondering: Can doubt also have a positive, even a powerful side?

I was in Australia last week, facilitating an executive workshop on Diversity and Inclusion. My client was determined to ensure that the executive team take into account more diverse opinions and include more varied perspectives in their analysis and decision-making. I was impressed by the vision of this team. Their conscious thinking about their own decision-making was inspiring and their will to enhance their own decision-making was impressive. As I worked with them, it struck me that what they were actually doing, was to inject a healthy dose of doubt into their decision-making. They were building the muscle to doubt that the standard approach was always the best, to doubt that their traditions ought to prevail, to doubt that the classical sources of information would be the most useful ones at the next junction.

This led to me connect some dots. A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a few days at Oxford University, where I am an Associate Fellow at Saïd Business School. I go to Oxford regularly to spend time in the academic environment, meet friends and extend my network. This is always invigorating. It gives me fresh ideas. It lets me bounce my ideas off diverse and brilliant people. It stimulates new thinking and uncovers new opportunities for collaboration. This time I met with Dr. Michael Smets, one of the key drives of a vast collaboration effort that has led to “The CEO Report” ( Dr. Smets and his colleagues conducted structured interviews with more than 150 CEOs to understand how they think and work. One of the emerging, surprising findings was how conscious many of these CEOs are about the importance of doubt. They said things like:

“One of the most important things is having people around you that tell you how wrong you are.”

“The idea that you are crystal clear at those moments – for me anyway – it’s an artificial construct, because if you’re that clear, you have probably missed something.”

“If you are not careful and you think that you are indestructible, then that is where the dangers lurk.”

Dr. Smets highlights concrete, productive actions that can spring from healthy doubt:

– obtain peer mentoring

– benchmark your practices to build perspective on where you stand

– put in place mechanisms to ensure diversity of thinking

– manage risk proactively and creatively

– build in time for continuous learning – ensuring diversity of input.

Upon moving from Europe to Hong Kong, I adopted all these practices as I learned to operate in a new environment. I connected with senior business people and asked for their input on local customs and traditions. I compared my way of working with the procedures used in similar organizations in the region. I increased the time I spent networking with people outside my area of practice – to increase my aperture. I adopted the humble mindset that there would certainly be risks that I was completely unaware of and the curiosity to discover them. Finally, I carved out 20% of my time for continuous learning – much of it in areas that made me distinctly uncomfortable as I went through the learning. I optimistically chose to interpret the discomfort as a sign of growth.

As a leader, where might you benefit from injecting a healthy dose of doubt in your information gathering, your analysis and your decision-making? How can you engineer for people to challenge you productively? How can you get more creative about understanding and managing risk – leveraging perspectives that are more diverse?

Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.