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.
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.