Charles Handy on the importance of “decent doubt”
In August 1605 Oliver Cromwell wrote to the stubborn elders of the Church of Scotland, saying:
“I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, to think it possible that you might be mistaken”.
Nearer home, we the professors in the department of the University where I used to teach were asked to approve the elevation of Harris to our fraternity, the professoriate. Harris was an acknowledged expert in his subject, well respected around the world. In person, he thought he knew everything and was a walking encyclopaedia. He even had the effrontery to lecture me on my subject, “The Future of Work”, and my wife on how to cope with the pains of childbirth. She was not amused.
Doubt was not part of his make-up. The trouble is, to be a proper professor, you need to have decent doubt. Decent doubt is the foundation of all science. You challenge the state of knowledge as it exists and try to move it on. Decent doubt is the requirement of all teachers – to be open to argument, even from your students.
Decent doubt, as Oliver Cromwell had tried to remind the elders of Scotland, is the foundation of religion, for without the need for doubt, you would not need faith. Decent doubt is at the heart of everyday companionship. You cannot have a discussion with somebody who does not admit that they might be sometimes open to disagreement.
It can be hard to live with someone who has no decent doubt. My late wife, whom I miss very sadly, seldom acknowledged doubt.
She trusted her instinct. “I think with my guts,” she said. “And they are always right”.
In my arguments with my wife, which were many, I believed I could triumph easily, having been trained to reason by endless writing of essays.
Unfortunately for me, she was normally right, and I was wrong.
So I had to doubt my own reasoning powers. Thenceforth I said my job is to work out why my wife is right and I am not. That way we could both share in the decision.
I would endlessly tell my management students that good management is essentially common sense. The trouble is, common sense is neither common nor often sensible. You have to challenge it, you have to doubt it.
So when you think you’ve got a solution, assume that it could be better, doubt that it is right. And give yourself a discipline of choosing another at least two or three alternatives to test it.
You will make yourself much more agreeable as a work mate or as a boss, and far more agreeable as a conversationalist and a partner in marriage.
Decent doubt is a form of strength because it goes with modesty and a sense of humility. It would be nice if our politicians exhibited some decent doubt when they go on the television or the radio and admit that perhaps they are not always right, and perhaps things could be improved on.
So my recommendation to you all is, even when you are absolutely sure that you are right, admit at least privately and preferably publicly, that you could be wrong. It makes you more approachable, more lovable, more friendly, more acceptable, more believable.
And you need to practice what I preach, just as I had to learn myself to practice it when confronted with my wife’s infallible instinct and intuition.
Charles Handy’s books on management have sold over a million copies and have changed the way we view business and society. His latest book, 21 Letters, is now available in paperback and on audiobook. Read more here. Charles suffered a stroke in 2019 following the death of his wife in a car crash in 2018. This piece was dictated to his carer.