Defeating Skepticism

Skepticism in leadership takes on several forms; some are advantageous, and some are detrimental. In its truest sense, skepticism is a logical and rational challenge of ideas to get to the reality or truth about a specific issue. Leaders with such a constructive, critical eye possess a positive strength, especially in a fast-paced environment where many proposals compete.

But this sense of the word has been overridden in today’s culture. Within the last generation, the typical impression we have of skepticism pertains to a close-minded, doubtful, and hard-to-convince mentality. Leaders can also allow distrust or resentment to play into this picture.

This kind of skepticism is damaging in many ways, and stifles organizations. Fortunately there are ways leaders can undo skeptical traits and adopt a better outlook.

Embracing Failure

Skepticism is often bred out of a fear of failure. A leader can be so concerned about failing that no ideas appear to offer a reasonable level of risk because they are scrutinized so heavily. None will work well enough. The task is too difficult to attempt. The threat of failure looms too large. Have you ever felt like this? You’re not alone.

There isn’t a leader who hasn’t feared the possibility of failure. They’re under constant pressure to produce, succeed, and grow the organization. Though they have this in common, leaders have a choice of how they view potential failure: something to be avoided or an opportunity to improve (and succeed.)

As author Gary Burnison describes in his book, No Fear of Failure (Wiley, 2011), failure happens to everyone, but there can be significant advantages.

“Success may instill confidence, but it is failure that imparts wisdom. With wisdom comes the inner serenity needed to create a bridge between failure and success.”

Failure offers the insight to get better, to shake loose the sense of setback, and grow in the chance to learn key lessons that can’t be learned any other way. Leaders with significant key lesson experiences are the ones who top their competitors.

If a leader sees that all great leaders fail, and failure is not final but is often beneficial, a more positive outlook can be had. And with a positive outlook, a greater openness to ideas can be gained. The habitual rejection of ideas will fade away. A coach can help you frame this perspective.

Shaking Personal Bias

Another breeding ground for close-minded skepticism is an over emphasis on past negative experiences. Regrets from the past, whether self-caused or not, can be powerful deterrents in the mind, unduly shaping your beliefs. A leader with a negative bias over a certain topic will be unable to assess it with objective eyes. Can you recall a time when you simply declared, “I’m not going there again?” And have you found yourself unable to clearly explain why?

These are the kinds of biases every person has in their lives, to some degree. We don’t know we have them. Leaders certainly are not exempt.

In his book, Everyday Bias, Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), author Howard J. Ross helps us understand the powerful influence past experiences have on our minds:

“Unconscious influences dominate our everyday life. What we react to, are influenced by, see or don’t see, are all determined by reactions that happen deep within our psyche. Reactions which are largely unknown to us.”

How can a leader counter this?

First, accept the fact that subconscious influences often keep you from seeing things as how they really are. If you have a bitter taste over a certain issue, a bias could be in play. In significant decisions, err on the side of being biased, and decide to let another view have a chance of being true. Force yourself. You will most likely need help from a trusted colleague or coach.

Second, for the specific issue at hand, determine if the circumstances are actually the same as those in the past. If not, allow this to paint a better picture. Third, recall why the past outcome was negative, and what you learned since then so you can change your approach.

Finally, explore all reasons why your feelings could be off target, and concede that another perspective is more appropriate. Your skeptical position can be reversed.

Eliminate the Not-Invented-Here Syndrome

Because of pride, unwillingness to trust the judgment of others, or a need to control, leaders are skeptical of the ideas of others. The view that only your ideas are worth pursuing is greatly limiting, and self-deceptive. The best leaders know that they don’t have all the answers—no one does. There are many people out there, perhaps under your own roof, who are more brilliant than you.

People who follow a leader skeptical of all ideas other than their own will soon stop submitting ideas. Think of the prospects of an organization where new ideas cease. Have you noticed the flow of ideas around you drying up? It could be because you only trust your own ideas.

Al Pittampalli, author of the book, Persuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds To Change The World (Harper Collins, 2016), describes the evolving view the business culture has on leaders who change their minds.  At one time, it was considered a sign of weakness. Now, leaders who change their minds are often admired for adapting to volatile, threatening conditions, and staying ahead of the game. The image of pridefulness is being overshadowed by one of shrewdness.

The best way to overcome skepticism of other people’s ideas is to challenge your own. Establish an open, collaborative culture. Include brainstorming exercises throughout the organization, especially at the top:

  • Collects all ideas, without critique.
  • Use a weighted grading system to eliminate bias, and score ideas.
  • Sift out the highest scores and trust them.

People are drawn in, become more engaged, and best of all, the greatest ideas and strategies are found. Sometimes the oddest ideas turn out to be the best.

Accept this: with better ideas from the team, there’s nothing wrong with changing your mind away from your own ideas. In fact, it’s admirable. Shove a prideful position aside, and cleverly make the most effective use of the resources you have. Sounds much better, doesn’t it?

You’ll find that critical, constant skepticism is a debilitating element that will limit you, your staff and your organization. If you sense that a skeptical outlook has gotten the better of you, choose open mindedness and reap the rewards.

The Paradox of Leadership Give and Take

Western leaders have been conditioned for generations to believe that the way to advance is to claim as much as possible, to take more than you give. Many leaders make personal gain the objective of business life, and almost any means to achieve it is fair game.

Hard work, perseverance, passion, and talent are valuable, of course. However, in the human dynamics of business, taking what you can, even if it’s from others, is often the method used to attain rewards.

But what if there was a paradoxical truth that showed the opposite to be the case—that by giving away what you have, you’ll get even more? There is substance to this truth, and it warrants examination.

The majority of employees see their bosses fitting the mold of the “taker.” These leaders are viewed as prioritizing their personal needs above everyone else’s, in a competitive arena where there are definitive winners and losers.

This perception is so common we stereotype managers by their interpersonal behavior. An aggressive, self-serving leader who gets what they want by using people to get it is seen as powerful, competent, and productive. We assume this taker is a person who will work their way up the corporate ladder effectively.

Conversely, leaders who put their needs last, who serve their people by giving more than they take, are seen as weak, interdependent, and insecure. These “givers” are not viewed as likely to advance.

Again, cultural experience makes some of these things seem factual, but looking deeper reveals another reality.

Adam Grant, in his book, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (Penguin 2013), describes the contrast between these two basic styles of leadership social interaction: the taker and the giver.

Takers are more self-focused, motivated to succeed first, and give (if necessary) down the road. The ends justify the means, so they believe. Givers are focused on others, and sense the need to give of themselves first, and success will come later. The benefits to others are paramount.

Takers see themselves as superior and set apart from the rest. Givers recognize that they belong to a team with diverse skills and that they all depend on each other.

Takers are more independent, claim more credit, and are reluctant to share knowledge, privilege, or power. Givers are more willing to ask for help, and to share credit, knowledge, and rewards.

In the traditional mindset that claims the spoils go to the victor, the takers have the perceived edge in leadership success. And initially they may. But over time, as author Grant points out, success depends heavily on how leaders approach their interactions with other people.

The Deception About Taking

The premise regarding those who try to claim as much value as they can is that they get what they want. They have an intentionality that achieves goals and maximizes opportunity. Takers make things happen for themselves, and for the most part, those around them, as they take advantage. We’ve seen this happen all the time.

This is an attempt to gain, with a narrow focus on personal benefits. The costs are secondary, and often discounted. However, the position that seems advantageous at face value is rarely advantageous at all—for those reporting to the taker and even for the taker themselves. This is the deception of the taker’s way.

Leaders who are takers are self-promoting and self-protective. They take credit that may belong to others and spin things in ways that benefit their position. Employees have little difficulty spotting this. Eventually, the leader becomes known for this and the responses of those around them are not favorable.

Takers grow to earn the disrespect of those they work with because of the maneuvers they make. No one likes to be taken advantage of, or have their work claimed by their boss. Other leaders are often affected as well, and word spreads.

Takers may be envied by some, due to their apparent favor with higher leaders. Others may resent them. Both responses fashion enemies. People subject to a taker sense the detriment to their own careers, and that is about as negative a feeling as possible in the work setting.

Overall value in the group declines, due to the draining of motivations and ambitions from its members. The long-term career prospects for a taker are compromised because team performance suffers and turnover rises. Leaders who are responsible for this fallout eventually develop negative reputations that excuses cannot defend.

It’s deceiving. Amazing skills, training, and drive are often considered the recipe for stardom. What often appears to be a leader who has the world at their command is someone who suffers from a damaged success ladder. The damage is self-inflicted—all because of a poor way of treating people. The leader doesn’t recognize the long-term effects of taking from others.

The Surprise About Giving

Givers, on the other hand, generally don’t strike people as those who will attain what corporate life considers success. They put the needs of others ahead of self, sometimes helping them with their tasks instead of focusing on their own. Giving leaders are more prone to add value to their people than worry about what they receive personally.

By traditional standards, givers are viewed as inefficient or slow achievers. This unfavorable impression is a result of not spending enough time on their tasks. Thus their recognition for advancement is often negatively affected.

Giving leaders care about helping people become their best by teaching, helping, or mentoring. They recognize that in a group of diverse talents, everyone needs others to reach the peak of effectiveness. To them, success comes in teams, not so much to individuals. If this means a tarnished personal reputation, then so be it. In the competitive business world, this mentality is often considered strange, even crazy.

However, as with the taker, paradigms about givers can be inaccurate. With time, the workings within the giver’s world can reveal surprising benefits.

Givers trust people and give them the benefit of the doubt. They are willing to risk themselves by betting on those around them. Givers understand there is a difference between taking and receiving. As author Grant defines, receiving is a willingness to accept help, with the desire to reciprocate. Givers credit others for their work.

Unlike taking, giving is appreciated. Givers focus on the success of others, and grow to earn the respect and trust of those around them. They are noticed as someone good to work with. People welcome givers because they add overall value to everyone. This raises the success of the team as well.

Givers draw people to them, and the giving becomes contagious. There are numerous benefits for those following a giver. They have a huge learning advantage. Their abilities are strengthened. The desire to give to others is enhanced. Mutual giving breeds interdependence, which breeds stronger networks and beneficial contacts. The increase in skills expands exponentially.

Employee engagement expands as well, and people are more motivated about their jobs. This increases productivity and efficiency. Eventually, the giving leader is recognized as a major contributor, as people throughout the organization realize and talk about it.

The biggest surprise is that giving leaders can be the most successful leaders of all, despite their apparent shortcomings. As author Grant suggests: organizations need more givers and fewer takers. The paradox of leadership giving and taking is easier to grasp when we look below the surface, and see the effects of time: give away what you have to end up with more―take what you want and end up with less.

Strengthening the Giver’s Image

Giving leaders can be very effective overall because of how they enrich those around them. Yet there is still an impressionable bias against them. Some regard them as soft or weak. This can stifle or threaten a giver’s career. But there are ways they can combat this.

Many givers are aware of the impression others have. Giving is, after all, an unnatural conduct in the tough corporate environment. The giving leader can fear appearing soft, and this can deter them from giving, by acting more like people expect. This helps no one. But fortunately givers can raise their stock by busting the common myths about givers.

Giving leaders can be firm, yet still be kind. Helping can require expectations or accountability, and still enhance engagement. A giving demeanor can be serious, yet fair―tough yet appreciative. These are not mutually exclusive traits. They work very well together.

Givers can be results-oriented, without being critical, threatening, or inconsiderate, like takers tend to be. Employees want to be held accountable and led well with conviction under defined expectations. The giver is perfectly positioned to do this, and to do it in a way people respect and admire.

Don’t Be a Doormat

Givers, if taken advantage of too often, can become leery, and eventually withdraw giving to avoid being hurt. This truly renders the giver ineffective and grants the takers more control.

This “doormat” state is avoidable. Givers can learn to trust with greater discernment, spotting genuine givers from takers in sheeps’ clothing. To do this, they raise their level of observation.

Get to know people and watch their behavior. Remember that agreeable people are not necessarily givers. Look for motives and values as true indicators rather than outer appearances. Wait for clues, such as shallowness or true genuineness. Observe how they treat others. Notice if they regard themselves highly or not.

Givers can also adjust their approach to suspected takers. If there is a lack of reciprocity, they can become what author Grant calls a “matcher,” someone who will give, but conditionally. Giving is done with the agreement that the other person gives back.  Assertiveness is appropriate to require fair and honorable exchanges.

Giving leaders can put up their guard, yet still be polite. Learn to say no, but do it considerately. Reduce your exposure and find another resource to meet someone’s needs, and observe how that transpires. If there is cooperation and reciprocation, then the giving faucet can be opened up again, while continuing to assess the indicators.

Givers are a vital key to organizational success, and are responsible for the success of many others. They understand that winning doesn’t require that someone else lose. There are enough credits and rewards for everyone. Takers draw life out of an organization, and leaders are wise to avoid those behaviors. A coach or trusted colleague can help with this.

Giving doesn’t require major sacrifices or deeds. It just requires caring about others and sharing what you have inside. Try to emulate the spirit of the giver, and see what good things happen.