How to manage doubt

Written by
Bonnie Gwin
Heidrick & Struggles

27 Nov 2017

27 Nov 2017 • by Bonnie Gwin

Faced with doubt, some employees are paralysed, while others demonstrate hubris. Bonnie Gwin offers a framework to help you understand the balance of knowledge and fear and turn doubt into competitive advantage.

This article is provided to Changeboard by our Future Talent 2018 partners, Heidrick & Struggles. You can see Heidricks' Managing Partner Colin Price in conversation with Aviva's CEO, Mark Wilson, at Changeboard's Future Talent Conference 2018.


How much knowledge do people in your organisation have when they face a difficult decision? How anxious do they feel? As an HR leader, how might you promote the idea that your organisation’s leadership can use uncertainty as a tool?

Thinking about doubt along the dimensions of knowledge and emotion, with the following four possible combinations, provides a systematic way for you to better manage doubt in the business and even use it as a competitive advantage.

Scenario 1: low knowledge, no fear 

This is perhaps the most dangerous combination of all in an organisation - employees charging blindly ahead, despite what they don’t know. The remedy is preparation.

Techniques for HR leaders to pursue and implement can include scenario planning, worst-case scenarios, long-term planning, and contingency planning. The goal, as in all instances of doubt, is to find a comfort zone in which those in the company can act decisively despite not having full knowledge.

Scenario 2: high knowledge, no fear 

Of all the possibilities, this one would seem to entail the least doubt. But it is still possible that a false sense of security can cause leaders to overlook other important choices. The remedy is challenge. And diversity of thought provides the means to get there.

Encourage everyone to seek diverse points of view - from the management team, the board, and a wide variety of other people inside and outside the company.

Techniques such as war gaming or a devil’s advocate can also surface contrary views and foster a culture of constructive dissent across the organisation.

Scenario 3: high knowledge, high anxiety

The risk here is angst - a deep-seated fear that could prevent leaders and others in the organisation from pursuing a course of action they are convinced is right. The remedy lies in validation.

Encourage team members to seek validation from mentors and the board, from other internal sounding boards, and through benchmarking. And  encourage everyone to communicate their findings to the broader business.

If they don’t get validation, they can at least learn that their fear was justified, and they can communicate that too.

Scenario 4: low knowledge, high anxiety

This is the worst of both worlds and the condition likely to generate maximum doubt among those throughout the organisation. The risk is paralysis. The remedy is awareness, encompassing the cognitive and the emotional.

You can encourage people to constructively harness doubt in this situation through continual learning opportunities, including wide and deep reading, data collection, and expert advice. Fostering conversations about the doubt across the organisation is useful too. 

Turn doubt into a decision tool

Understanding the risks and remedies for doubt enables HR and other leaders to mitigate discomfort in the organisation.

They can then return to a zone where everyone can make more productive and well-considered choices, turning doubt into a powerful decision tool.


See Heidrick & Struggles at the Changeboard Future Talent Conference.

About the author 


Bonnie W. Gwin is vice chairman and co-managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ CEO & Board Practice. She is based in New York.

A version of this article was originally published in the Heidrick & Struggles Knowledge Centre.



Heidrick & Struggles