CEO Magazine: Why scepticism and debate enhance decision-making -

Michelle wrote this article titled “Why scepticism and debate enhance decision-making” that originally appeared in CEO Magazine that discusses why the devil’s advocate has a role to play in organisational decision-making.

With the prevalence of ‘fake news’ and corporate scandals, and the increasing complexity and inter-connectedness of the business world it’s timely to challenge the process of organisational decision-making.

While it’s easy to argue for the benefits of good decision-making, it can be less easy to put good decision-making habits into practice.

Leaders are often taught that they should not express doubt and need to have all the answers. However, in today’s world that’s impossible. No single person can hold all the answers, and being overconfident is a bias that has correlations with organisational hierarchy and power.

A 2010 study by the University of Southern California and London Business School found that the more power a person experienced, the more confident they were of the accuracy of their thoughts and beliefs.

That’s where scepticism plays its part. It’s easy to paint the sceptic in a negative light – as the person who’s cynical and therefore to be dismissed. However, having people at the decision-making table who aren’t easily convinced ensures decisions are robustly debated and discussed.

We are tribal creatures, and we like to fit in and be part of the pack. This pressure to conform means we can hold off challenging the status quo or questioning things that others around us are accepting. We can make decisions and take action with little more reason than that everyone else is doing it.

In behavioural economics, this is known as the herd mentality. It plays out all the time on the share market. If a company’s share price goes up, people will rush to buy, while when it falls, people will rush to sell. This seemingly irrational behaviour demonstrates how the choices of a larger group can influence the actions of an individual.

For organisations facing increasing complexity, they need people who are willing to challenge and ask questions.

It can be hard to be the person who speaks up and challenges, and puts on what Edward de Bono called the ‘black hat’. Leaders can worry that if no-one else is voicing a concern, then perhaps they’ve missed something or misinterpreted the issue.

Silence can be an easier option, even though remaining silent may result in poor decisions being made.

The solution is to create a culture where debate is encouraged. In such an environment, leaders and teams are encouraged to look beyond the easy answer and quick agreement. They are curious about what could be, rather than merely accepting what they are told.

In doing this, they are:

What’s happening around them, on what they are seeing and hearing, and therefore what action they should take.

Assumptions they and others may have to ensure they are making a good decision and are open to debate, dissenting views and outlier opinions.

Their facts and interpretations of those facts as they are on the lookout for bias, which may adversely impact their thought processes and decisions.

As French philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss said: “The wise man doesn’t give the right answers. He poses the right questions.”