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How CEOs manage doubt

Subscribe to Chief Executive Officer & Board of Directors 8/26/2015 Bonnie W. Gwin

How CEOs manage doubt

Real CEOs exude confidence. Radiate certainty. Act decisively. Or so popular mythology has it. (Think Don Geiss, the fictional chief executive of General Electric played by Rip Torn on NBC’s comedy 30 Rock.)

In fact, the overwhelming majority of CEOs confess that they have doubts. That’s one of the striking findings of The CEO Report, the product of a year-long global research partnership between Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford and Heidrick & Struggles. Of the more than 150 CEOs who sat down with us for confidential, in-depth interviews, 71 percent not only admit to doubt but also embrace it as a basis for better decisions.

“If you don’t doubt yourself in a constructive, positive way,” said one participant, “you are borderline dangerous for your company.”

Doubt is a challenge of both knowledge and emotion. Knowledge can fall anywhere on a continuum from full not knowing to full knowledge. Feelings of doubt can fall anywhere between anxiety and fearlessness. How much knowledge do you have when you face a difficult decision? How anxious do you feel? How might you use your uncertainty as a tool?

Thinking about doubt along those two dimensions, with their four possible combinations, provides a systematic way — for CEOs and other leaders alike — to manage doubt and even use it as a competitive advantage:

How CEOs manage doubt matrix

Low knowledge/no fear. This is perhaps the most dangerous combination of all. The risk is hubris — charging blindly ahead, despite what you don’t know. The remedy is preparation. The means, say the CEOs we spoke with, lie in risk management to increase the odds that what you don’t know won’t hurt you. Techniques can include scenario planning, worst-case scenarios, long-term planning, contingency planning, and more. The goal, as in all instances of doubt, is to find a comfort zone in which you can act decisively despite not having full knowledge.

High knowledge/no fear. Of all the possibilities, this one would seem to entail the least doubt. Even so, there remains the risk of myopia — the chance that a false sense of security has led you to overlook other important choices. The remedy is challenge. Diversity of thought provides the means to get there. As one CEO put it, “One of the most important things is having people around you that tell you how wrong you are.” You can seek diverse points of view from your management team, your board, and a wide variety of other people inside and outside the company. You can also use techniques such as war gaming or a devil’s advocate to surface contrary views, and you can foster a culture of constructive dissent.

High knowledge/high anxiety. The risk here is angst not just another word for anxiety, but a deep-seated fear that could prevent you from pursuing a course of action you are convinced is right. The remedy lies in validation. You can seek it from mentors and the board, from other internal sounding boards, and through benchmarking. And if you don’t get validation, you can at least learn that your fear was justified.

Low knowledge/high anxiety. This is the worst of both worlds and the condition likely to generate maximum doubt. The risk is paralysis — an unaffordable risk when a decision must be made despite the state of your knowledge or your emotions. The remedy is awareness, encompassing the cognitive and the emotional. You can constructively harness doubt in this situation through continual learning, including wide and deep reading, data collection, expert advice, and conversations with a wide variety of people about both dimensions of your doubt.   


Download the infographic: Harnessing the power of doubt


Understanding the risks and remedies for doubt enables leaders to mitigate their discomfort, whether its source is cognitive or emotional, and return to a zone where they can make more productive and well-considered choices, turning doubt into a powerful decision tool.

But what of the nearly 30 percent of CEOs who were reluctant to admit that managing doubt was a part of their job? Are 3 out of 10 companies led by chief executives who rarely have second thoughts? Probably not. In fact, around 10 percent of the interviewees who denied having any doubts went on to describe how they reduce uncertainty and gain clarity — in other words, reduce doubt. Like their peers who approach doubt more consciously and systematically, they recognize that certainty can be not only an illusion but also a dangerous one.


This article is adapted in part from The CEO Report, the product of a year-long global research partnership between Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford and Heidrick & Struggles.

Read the full report

For further insight about the report, contact: 

Valerie Germain Dave Tullett Karen West, PhD
Managing Partner          Vice President          Partner         


Bonnie W. Gwin Vice Chairman +1 212 8679876

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