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The power of doubt: Finding comfort in discomfort

8 min read


This post is an excerpt from “The CEO Report,” by Heidrick & Struggles and Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, based on in-depth interviews with more than 150 CEOs from around the world.

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Doubts are to CEOs what nerves are to elite athletes: a source of focus and insight when harnessed constructively, a threat to peak performance when not. This was the spirit in which many of the CEOs we talked to approached the issue. Reimagining doubt in this way allows leaders to sharpen their ripple intelligence, enhance their ability to make decisions, and mitigate business and decision making risks in times of complexity and uncertainty. Clearly, doubt is a capability to be cultivated rather than a weakness to be cured. But how do CEOs do that in practice?

CEOs insist that, despite the changing nature of their role, they remain “the ultimate decision makers,” providing clarity and direction. This clarity is ever more elusive in a world of intersecting trends, competing demands, and unpredictable ripples. Worse, what appears to be clear may in fact be a dangerous illusion, because “if you’re that clear, you’ve probably missed something.” Keen to protect themselves against this false sense of security and the risk of being blindsided, “a [certain] level of professional doubt should be the quality of any good leader,” says one CEO.

Chasing certainty is futile

While the majority of CEOs we spoke to embrace doubt as a catalyst for positive action, others struggle to do so openly, even under the guise of anonymity our research provided. In fact, around 10 percent of our respondents deny having any doubts, but go on to describe how they reduce uncertainty and gain clarity—in other words, reduce doubt. For instance, one CEO firmly declared himself “out of the second-guessing game because it will drive you crazy,” but later advised that “you have to have people you can go to, a network, to say ‘Look, I’m really struggling with this, can I get your opinion, your advice?’” expressly adding that “if you don’t, you’re not doing your homework.”

The key question seems to be: where is the line between constructive doubt and what this CEO termed “going crazy?”

Figure 7: The landscape of doubt Doubt is a generative force to be harnessed, rather than a weakness to be cured. Understanding the landscape of doubt helps CEOs leverage their discomfort for more timely and informed decision making. (Heidrick & Struggles graphic and caption)

Most CEOs, unsurprisingly, see doubt in terms of data-processing constraints and a lack of knowledge. In our increasingly “unknowable” world, CEOs know that seeking better information is necessary, but chasing certainty is futile: “You can’t wait for a hundred percent certainty because by then the world has changed the question and it’s too late,” observes one CEO. “But you can’t just make a guess.” The key is getting comfortable making decisions in the grey area in between or, in the words of one CEO, to “get comfortable with discomfort.”

Comfort, however, is not just about knowing, but also about feeling. Asked how they feel before making high-stakes decisions under uncertainty, CEOs responded with the full palette of emotions, from “anxiety” to “excitement.” CEOs naturally articulated the “knowing” aspect of doubt, while the “feeling” piece often lingered subconsciously.

Credit: Heidrick & Struggles

However, acknowledging doubt as both a feeling and an information issue helps distinguish constructive doubt from disruptive second-guessing. The more self-aware CEOs we spoke with recognize two simultaneous and equally disruptive risks: hubris and paralysis. One CEO reflects that, “the areas I’m strong in are also potentially my weaknesses,” recognizing the temptation of overconfidence and enabling himself to protect against it. Conversely, another CEO confided that she tries to “anticipate the pros and cons of all of the options … so I always feel slightly anxious.” It is in this sense that moderate anxiety can be leveraged as “a heightened sense of adrenaline,” as another CEO put it, like an athlete’s pre-game nerves. Beyond that, however, it is likely to be disruptive.

Mapping the landscape of doubt

Our understanding hinges on two insights: first, harnessing doubt allows CEOs to balance themselves within the “uncomfortable” comfort zone in  which they feel able to act decisively, even in times of uncertainty. Second, the type of doubt and the size of this comfort zone are defined by  dimensions of both knowing and feeling—all of which can be mapped on a stylized two-by-two matrix (Figure 7). Once CEOs understand which quadrant they find themselves in for any given decision, they can think about tailoring strategies to turn doubt into a powerful tool and thereby expand their comfort zones while protecting against the various risks of decision making.

For example, where CEOs were anxious about insufficient knowledge, doubt expressed itself for some as an “honest humility about what you’re capable of knowing, and an insatiable sense of curiosity.” Moreover, several CEOs reported leveraging their doubts for continuous learning. For some leaders, this took the form of data collection and analysis. Still others approached it on a more personal level, for example by traveling, seeking out diverse conversations, and gathering information from a broad selection of sources.

As one CEO pointed out, “the customized news feeds we all enjoy can generate blinkers on the sides of our heads and constrain our views.” Therefore, he makes a point of reading outside his typical areas of interest to remove the blinkers and broaden his horizons.

Notes another: “Ask good questions and you will make better decisions.” Not doing so risks putting CEOs outside their ”uncomfortable comfort zones” and thus in danger of decision paralysis.

In circumstances where CEOs report feeling residual anxiety despite good information, many turn to peer mentoring or benchmarking for validation. In the words of one CEO, seeking validation means “sharing your problem and being vulnerable with people that otherwise you might be  uncomfortable doing that with.” Chairpersons, boards, or external consultants fall into this category. Other CEOs prefer “safer” environments such as family, friends, or CEO associations.

Validation is critical for tempering doubt and channeling its productive power. Moreover, it mitigates the risk of doubt spiraling into angst, wasteful information searches, or unhealthy self-challenge. Those more “fearless” leaders who feel well informed tend to “value the friction and the debate that goes on around even the small stuff” so they don’t get too comfortable and risk overconfidence. In fact, such leaders often go out of their way to create environments where honest and constructive debate is not only welcome, but expected.

Among the CEOs we interviewed, the most common sources of debate were the board and board chair, although some CEOs have established designated panels to serve as devil’s advocates. Such organizations are well positioned to leverage the diversity of thought that in turn can lead to better and more thoughtful challenges to the status quo.

When constructive conflict is present, says one CEO, “[I] always have someone bringing me an angle, a vision that I clearly didn’t see.” It is these  angles that strengthen the CEO’s ripple intelligence. However, constructive challenges in the C-suite can be few and far between, and one CEO  laments that “one of the ‘aha [moments]’ about being CEO is, you stop hearing the truth.” Such leaders need to expressly invite dissent or else risk seeking challenge but finding false validation, and thus tragically reinforcing the very myopia they seek to mitigate.

CEOs who are comfortable making decisions with limited information often rely on experience or gut instinct. However, they acknowledge that in new situations where their gut may be wrong, “it’s also important to marry that gut feeling with the ability to be humble enough to ask.” Leaders in this  category rely on traditional risk-management approaches to protect against the possible negative consequences of their decisions. This helps give  them a sense of preparation while protecting against the hubris that the “CEO knows best.” “Because if you are not careful and you think that you are indestructible,” notes one respondent, “then that’s where the dangers lurk.”

Slowing down

Critically, though, processing doubt takes time. Judiciously assessing the speed, scope, and significance of change is paramount so that CEOs can  identify the decisions to delegate, determine the decisions to make, and then dedicate sufficient time for productive doubt on the latter. In other words, proper delegation frees up time to pace the decisions CEOs have to make and creates space for constructive doubt.

Once that is accomplished, though, these strategies allow CEOs to outsource doubt. While for the most part leaders will leverage their management teams, they can also utilize their boards and even families and friends to help suspend themselves in a state of productive skepticism without the burden of continuous self-questioning, simply by “having people around you that tell you how wrong you are,” as one CEO puts it.

One exception is CEOs’ self-questioning around the maintenance of their personal authenticity in the face of ever-present challenges to adapt.  Importantly, this is an issue CEOs do not associate with the question of “doubting yourself.” These more profound personal questions cannot be outsourced in the ways described here, but must be personally balanced by the CEO.