Leveraging the power of doubt in the C-suite


股票研究分析师预测公司收入。算法交易者预测股票价格趋势。财务顾问计划我们的未来投资。我们喜欢当我们参与专家时可以确定的信心。正如丹尼尔·卡尼曼(Daniel Kahneman)在他的书中提醒我们快速而慢的那样:“对不确定性的公正欣赏是理性的基石,但这不是人们和组织想要的。”

这对确定嵌入我的渴望n how we are wired – it is a universal human bias.

We must ask ourselves whether being dogmatically certain can impair our judgment. It can even be detrimental when it comes to making complex decisions and solving large-scale problems, particularly in uncertain times like these. Might it be more beneficial for companies if leaders could admit to their ignorance and doubt? If so, what is the role of professionalsin exploring these situations and the emotions associated with them?

The brain and certainty

We are hard-wired to seekcertaintydue to the brain’s unique capacity for prediction.When we can’t predict the outcome of a situation, the brain goes on alert. The emotional part– the limbic system – is activated. This system is like a hyper-vigilant watchman scanning incoming stimuli and deciding whether they are familiar or strange, certain or uncertain, friend or foe. When it perceives something as uncertain,诸如恐惧,压力,不安和焦虑之类的许多不舒服的情绪出现并淹没了我们的生理学。在这种状态下,我们简化了信息处理,以更快地思考并解决不确定性。这是我们的思维中的一个系统错误,会影响我们做出的判断和决策。也称为cognitive bias.Uncertainty is more than just the degree of not-knowing. There is an emotional component to it that is critical to our decision-making. The feeling that arises from uncertainty, namely doubt, can either work for us or against us.

四horsemen of uncertainty

2015年,我在萨伊德商学院的同事采访了150多个首席执行官首席执行官报告.欧洲工会与英国过渡n and COVID-19 creating profound change and upheaval all around us, their insights seem more timely and relevant than ever.

When it comes to uncertainty, CEOs expressed a 'full palette of emotions from anxiety to excitement.' We know that these emotions can play out in a myriad of ways in their judgment and decision-making.

In dealing with uncertainty, some CEOs recognise the complexity of the issues but are caught up in angst, such that they continuously search for counterfactuals to speculate about how their decisions might turn out. Or they can become so focused on being right that they unknowingly look for evidence to confirm what they already believe. This can lead them to myopia and cause them to make hasty decisions or miss opportunities.

At the other extreme, CEOs who might not fully grasp the intricacy of their situation can become paralysed by continually second-guessing themselves, overthinking and over-analysing such that they waft between their alternatives and never commit to a decision. Perhaps, most dangerous of all are the CEOs who have an excessively positive view of their abilities and their company’s strength. The hubris-infected CEOs are fearless and brazen.

Former Chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers, Dick Fuld’s misplaced confidenceled him to believein the unlimited potential of his company and not take into account how defaults on mortgages would affect his bank's financial position. The 2008 financial crisis revealed how a fearlessness in decision-making could lead to poor judgment, poor decision-making, poor governance, and poor leadership and management resulting in the downfall of several financial institutions that thought they were too big to fail.

It is paramount for CEOs and their leadership teams to recognise these aspects of their behaviour when they're confronted with uncertainty. It is too early to judge CEOs’ responses to the pandemic, but no doubt, we will see who are the clear winners and losers in the coming 12 to 18 months.

'While we are all too familiar with the risks of decision-making biases, it is fascinating to see how CEOs are using doubt as an antidote,' says Professor Michael Smets, lead author of the CEO Report, 'They suspend themselves in a tension between fearlessness and anxiety to avoid extreme reactions and make better decisions. Paradoxically, the more CEOs doubt themselves, the more confidence they have in the final decision.'


CEOs who incorporate doubt into their decision-making add another layer of vetting to their process. Those with a willingness to embrace uncertainty and leverage the power of doubt can improve their judgment and make higher quality decisions. The insights captured in this report five years ago about how CEOs harnessed doubt are remarkably prescient and even more relevant and pertinent today.

Professor Tim Morris, principal investigator of the CEO Report says: 'We found that doubts are for the C-Suite what nerves are for elite athletes; if you can harness them, they become a positive force for better performance. If not, they derail you pretty quickly.'

In times of crisis, there is no blueprint for CEOs to follow, so it is difficult for them to forecast the outcomes of their decisions. They have to navigate the ambiguity relying on their curiosity and common sense, acknowledging that both are shaped by the emotions they experience in the face of uncertainty. CEOs who reported anxiety about their insufficient knowledge recognised doubt as a positive force to the extent that it instilled in them an 'honest humility about what they’re capable of knowing and an insatiable sense of curiosity.' CEOs who can reframe doubt as curiosity were more inclined to ask questions such as: What am I missing? How do I need to reframe this problem? Or, who has a different perspective? When doubt is used in this deliberate way, we adopt a learning and growth mindset.

Curiosity is about seeking out new knowledge and experiences, and it motivates us to learn. It is a fundamental element of our cognition and a useful function that we have to guide us through uncertainty. Curiosity can counteract and protect the mind from the number of potentially harming biases. By taking another view about the situation, perhaps focusing on a different aspect of it, or putting it in some greater context that changes its meaning, we can elicit different emotional responses to uncertainty.


Covid-19 has created a level of openness and collaboration that has not been experienced before in financial services. At UniCredit, CEO Jean Pierre Mustier has encouraged informal dialogue with people outside his organisation by inviting his fellow CEOs to reach out to him and put their teams in direct contact with those in UniCredit to exchange, help and learn wherever possible.明确的信息是,像UniCredit这样的公司只有CEO共同集中培养他们为持续学习的疑问,才能掌握这一非凡挑战。


成功的首席执行官将是那些能够预料并设计自适应机制以面对不连续性的人 - 实际上,那些可以利用和培养怀疑的首席执行官在不断变化的世界中引起人们的领导。考虑到大流行的范围和规模在现代之前尚未经历过,试图使用过去的方法来指导其思维过程的首席执行官可能会在决策中犯错。但是,关注自己的疑问并保持好奇的首席执行官将能够使用更相关和新颖的参考点来快速转移。敏捷的首席执行官可以更加关注并认识到弱或新兴信号,并更容易地进行战略性转移。

At UniCredit, Mustier emphasises the need for CEOs to think and act differently: 'when you have a big shock, usually people think in terms of continuity, in a linear evolution; but you need to think in terms of discontinuity. Your behaviour needs to handle discontinuity; otherwise, it won't work. Crisis management has always shown that, when you have a big crisis, if you anticipate and manage discontinuity, then you're OK.'

As such, attentiveness to our doubts should help us recognise those moments when we should let go of linear thinking and accept discontinuity to forge a way forward.


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