Doubt as Nemesis or Muse

Big decisions should trigger doubt. If not, they are either too safe or an illusion. Doubt applied well is a useful check in our decision making.

I’ve made a lot of decisions in my career. The biggest ones were always filled with anxiety.  The most important, most valuable and riskiest decisions were often full of things that were deeply unknowable. More often than not, that unknowable included myself, I would doubt my capabilities, whether I could do the work and whether the decision was even mine to make.

As I made these decisions, I would have told you that doubt, especially self-doubt, was my nemesis. I was wrong. Doubt was also my muse. For the right balance, we need inspiring optimism and some doubt.

Doubt as Muse

The worst decisions I have made in my life were all free of doubt. In each of these decisions I fell victim to either overconfidence or illusion.

Overconfidence – Doubt as Critical Friend

When you are flush with overconfident certainties, there is value in the doubts of a critical friend. We have all seen people enthusiastically play the role of nemesis in decision making. We have many terms for this role: devil’s advocate, critic, black hat, blocker, cynic and more. These roles are often framed as opponents and run the risk of hardening overconfidence, dividing people into factions and fostering a move towards faith and illusion in decision making.

When managed well, my doubt has often been able to be harnessed into the role of critical friend. It is not an opponent. It is helping me to succeed with ‘unconditional support and unconditional critique’. Doubt unpacks the overconfidence and lets me get closer to a realistic assessment of my capabilities, my goals and my situation. I have a chance to learn. Doubt makes me work harder to do a better job. Doubt as muse can push as to find newer and better ways to go, inspiring us to look harder and deeper into our decisions.

Illusion – Doubt ripples Narcissus’ Pool

One of the most dangerous times to make a decision is when we have fallen in love with our own illusions. Just as we can fall in love with our idea of another person, rather than that actual person, the ideas that we love so passionately can be our own self-satisfying illusions. Like Narcissus staring lovingly into the pool, we have lost our grounding and our way.

Groupthink is a common organisational example. Everyone in the room is so in love with the illusory facts and decision under discussion that they reinforce their own mistakes, biases and prejudices. They also ask themselves “what on earth were we thinking?’ as soon as they have to explain the decision to a doubting public outside of the room. 

Equally dangerous are the decisions we take on faith. The narcissistic culture of many organisations invites us to ignore the world outside and just believe in the story, the illusions and the quality of the decisions. Whether through actual narcissists running the organisation or processes that reinforce that thinking, these moments of faith can be enthralling if we don’t retain our doubts.

Introducing doubts into these illusions ripples the pool and gives us a chance to find our grounding again. These doubts can be as simple as asking “what would need to be right for that to happen?’ or ‘what else could go wrong?’ One of the key values of diversity in organisations is introducing new ways of thinking and seeing the world to help introduce new inspirations and new doubts into this collective decision making. Diversity can mean transitional phases of lower trust in teams but unconditional and unfounded trust is a danger.

We make better decisions when we consider risks and when we are grounded in the world. Doubt can help us shatter our individual and collective illusions and make better decisions.

Doubt as Nemesis

In either category, doubt crosses into nemesis when it becomes intolerant of failure and unrealistic in its concerns. At this point, it is a hindrance to decision, action and success. 

We all must retain a bias to action. Inaction under doubt is an organisational killer and a path to personal disappointment. 

Most of the time the doubts that block our decision making are less significant and the decisions are less momentous than we feel in the moment anyway. We like to imagine our lives as full of heroic forks in an ever rising road. More often they are winding paths that rise and fall with all kinds of double backs and loops to navigate.  Many of the decisions that we think are earth shattering turn out to be capable of subsequent adjustment, improvement or revision. We need to keep doubt as nemesis in its place.

Doubt hangs in every human moment and expands exponentially in groups. We cannot gain by ignoring it. We are better to embrace it and let it guide us forward as a critical friend.


PS If your decision feels safe, you are in the comfort zone, go find some doubt and try again.

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