I was talking to someone yesterday who is considering taking a new job, but is has doubts about his capacity to do it. I remembered that a few years ago I wrote a series of checklists for new leaders one of which was New Leader: Manager Your Doubts. What follows is an extract from it.
Doubts can be healthy tools of learning and decision making, but they can also be paralyzing. You can get tied up in the anxieties your doubts create and then make no decisions or wrong decisions. You can jeopardize your leadership position by being tentative or by struggling alone with either professional or personal doubts. Your challenge is to acknowledge your doubts and then to manage them competently and confidently to your benefit and your organization's. In their article Why Should Anyone be Led by You? Goffee and Jones describe the way that Richard Branson (CEO Virgin) is not good at being interviewed, but is disarming in his approach to revealing his doubts about interviews and his ability to handle them. Here are some pointers to help you manage your doubts.
Be kind to yourself
Handled badly, having doubts can be an energy drainer, a time waster, and an opportunity risk. Handled well they can be the opposite – energizing, a good time investment, and an opportunity enabler. It depends how you think of them. If you get caught in a negative spiral – going over and over the doubts in your mind with no way out then you're not doing yourself justice. Recognize that doubts are healthy, they are inevitable, and they can be used wisely. Ask yourself questions that help turn the negative downwards spiral to a positive upwards spiral.
Frame your doubt as a question
Doubts arise if you have too little information, or too much information. In a new role you are likely to have too little information. You are playing without the full deck of cards. This is confusing because you don't know how to make the right choices and decisions. To help manage your doubts look for information that will help you resolve them. Information comes from a wide variety of sources. Frame your doubts as questions and search out information that will help you answer the questions.
Listen to your intuition
Doubts are useful checking devices so don't ignore them. Often they come out of listening to your intuition. You realize that 'you don't like the sound of that', or 'something smells fishy'. Use your doubts together with your intuition. Practice the skill of listening to your 'inner voice'. It may surface legitimate doubts or it may provide answers to irrational doubts. One caveat – use your intuition but use it thoughtfully. Leading your organization based on intuition alone is unwise. Back up your intuition with research and verification.
Check your information
Having access to good information goes a long way towards helping you managing professional and organizational doubts. But don't accept information blindly. Check the information you're receiving and the reliability of the sources. Ineffective or mis-information is of little value. The information you work with must be valid, reliable, and current. This means knowing how information flows in the organization and who or what a trustworthy source to provide it is. If your doubts are personal – am I up to the job? – then look for feedback again from reliable and trustworthy people.
Doubts bring questions. Use a variety of questions – open ended, redirecting, playback, leading, prompting, floating an idea – to frame your doubts as questions. Then look for the answers. Suspend judgment on the answers until you are confident that you have a full set of options and ways forward. Resist the temptation to jump into action as soon as you have your first question answered. Remember your doubts are best resolved by knowing the whole playing field. When you are confident that you have sight of this make some considered choices on how to work with resolving the doubts.
Doubts can be triggered by false assumptions. As a new leader you'll be scanning your environment with close attention looking at systems, strategies, staff, customers, etc. You'll have a tendency to try to match the new situation to similar previous ones. Before you take any actions check that you are not making interpreting information incorrectly. Your assumptions may be wrong. You may have leapt to a conclusion. Stay alive to other options for what you're feeling or seeing that's giving rise to your doubts.
Learn from your doubts
Doubts are a strong source of learning. Once you've stopped thinking negatively about doubting and started to ask questions about what the doubts mean and how you can make sense of them to improve your performance then you'll be in a position to learn from them. Learning is essential to you as a new leader (indeed for any leader). If you stop learning you stop understanding, stop getting new ideas, and stop being able to meet new situations. Use doubts as a learning vehicle for both your personal and professional development.
Reveal your doubts
Leaders who judiciously admit their vulnerabilities, doubts, and weaknesses paradoxically demonstrate leadership strength. Done carefully showing that you're human gives transparency to your colleagues and co-workers. Your open-ness will set the tone for open-ness which is helpful in organizational cultures that aim to develop collaboration, participation, and co-operation.