Leaders Have Forgotten why being Sceptical is Useful

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Leaders Have Forgotten why being Sceptical is Useful

Think of a person you know who displays sceptical behaviour such as; doubting, questioning, seeking answers, exploring gaps, or playing devil’s advocate. How do you respond to them or those traits? For many it can be a relatively uncomfortable interaction and experience.

It is easy to confuse scepticism with cynicism. Somewhere along the way some of us have intertwined the two. Let’s clarify: a cynic is a person who distrusts information, can be wholly self-serving and hard to convince even when presented with evidence. Scepticism on the other hand from a philosophical viewpoint, relates to a belief that knowledge is possible and obtainable through seeking evidence and taking part in education.

In his book, Don’t Believe Everything You Think, author Thomas E. Kida tells a story whereby he wakes up and thinks he sees a ghost, though admits he doesn’t actually believe in ghosts. When telling the story to others, he realised how quickly they almost certainly decided there must then indeed be ghosts, whatever else could it be? Upon further research, he found counter evidence that humans can experience hypnopompic hallucinations – essentially a state of waking and seeing perceptive illusions. Who knows, perhaps he did see a ghost, but did that have to be the only conclusion?

In today’s workplace, the art of probing, using critical thinking and purposeful enquiry has increasingly diminished. If it does exist it is met with frustration and annoyance. Those who seek and question are many times labeled an obtrusive or difficult person. When I observe leaders from afar, and frequently watch their busy fast paced environments and steadfast pursuit for results, it’s no wonder I find them falling into a trap of single mindedness. More so than ever we know that moving this quickly can prevent us from smelling the roses, and in this case capturing alternative thoughts, ideas or useful information.

How can we embrace scepticism and use it well?

For the Sceptic: Use Rapport to Challenge

In behavioural change, a high level of rapport and trust is used to ensure people can recognise and participate in change, change that may be confronting to them personally. The trick is to know when you have enough rapport to challenge someone without losing them to self-preservation (like putting walls up or no longer listening to you). When you are the sceptic, understand that using good lead-in sentences and seeking permission to be contrary is very helpful. Stating your intention for example: I want to give an alternative view, and totally accept it may be challenged, is that ok? This can help people consider the alternative thinking rather than getting their back up before the words are even out of your mouth!

Receiving Scepticism: Take Learning On

Having a learning mindset, will help you take the approach of growing your thinking. Many times, trying to be right or perfect stops this from happening. As Peter Cook says in his new book The New Rules of Management, ‘The idea of being willing to tolerate a discomfort level of seven or eight out of ten is not a bad way to think about it. To grow or improve in any domain of your life or business, you have to willing to be a bit uncomfortable.’ Learning is generally uncomfortable and many leaders do not want to show discomfort for fear of looking weak. This will prohibit productive change. When faced with a sceptic, frame the situation in a way that your brain knows you could gain more information or perhaps learn something new to add to the situation. It doesn’t mean you will, though if you value growth and change, you will give it a good shot and stop yourself from blocking the alternative views.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to encourage positive scepticism as a constructive skillset. Without it, you may prevent growth or progress in your pursuits and projects.

Originally published in Leadership HQ Magazine

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Suzanne W
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