September 4, 2021 / VOLUME NO. 173
Dealing With Doubt

Senior executives face a world of doubt. 

Nonbanks have replicated many of the crucial financial services that banks offer, and a global pandemic has upended how most customers interact with their bank. Responding to these changes will take vision — and could force executives to address doubt.

“Doubt is better thought about as a double-edged sword, which can lead to both functional consequences (such as exploration, careful action, etc.), as well as more dysfunctional aspects (such as unnecessary delay, anxiety and even dogmatism),” writes André Spicer, a professor of organizational behavior at the City, University of London, in a May paper on the theory of doubt within organizations.

There are many types of doubt that employees and a company will face, but the most prevalent form this takes within organizations is what Spicer calls “practical doubt,” defined as “doubt over what the right course of action is to achieve an agreed upon end.” For example, senior leaders know what outcome to achieve, but don’t know how to get there. 

This is a serious challenge for all firms. A varying degree of doubt exists within every company at any given time; the concern is when uncertainty, ambiguity and risk accumulate to create a contagion that spreads across individuals throughout the organization, causing employees at all levels to question the overall strategy, approach and objectives.

To combat the negative consequences of doubt, Spicer writes that executives and company leaders should be aware how doubt is triggered and how it functions within an organization, as well as how ritualized processes can help address, resolve and learn from it in a positive manner.

Spicer points out how fields like the military, nuclear science and the law leverage moments of doubt to make better decisions and reach better conclusions. The organizations that do this most successfully formalize moments of doubt through meetings and discussions that give their members’ space to voice their concerns and problem solve. Other organizations respond with experimentation. Either way, these organizations show that they can constructively address doubt and, importantly, resolve it.

As banks across the country grapple with the uncertain operating environment and future challenges, it may be worthwhile for executives to reflect on how they will address the doubts that will inevitably arise.

• Kiah Lau Haslett, managing editor of Bank Director
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