Why doubt says more about them than it does you

A few months ago I informed a family member that I had been offered a fabulous opportunity working in the people management section of a global company. The pay was great, the working conditions better and it was a great opportunity for my career. I had been headhunted for the role and was both shocked and proud of myself. An introvert by nature, I have never enjoyed talking about myself much but I guess you could say I wanted to make this person proud.

I was immediately met with doubt. If I remember correctly the response went something along the lines of: ‘I don’t know why they would offer it to you, surely there’s a better fit….perhaps someone older, in a different profession, with better experience’.

I was shocked and began mentally assembling a list of reasons for why I was suitable for the role:

1. I had the qualifications,

2. I had the experience, and;

3. I had the passion.

Plus the job would give me a great opportunity to learn and grow.

I couldn’t understand why this individual would doubt me — they were not present within my daily working life, had not viewed my work ethic first hand, they hadn’t even seen a copy of my resume, so why start from the assumption that I wasn’t the best fit. Where was the positivity!?

I had my ammunition, I was ready to fire.

I quickly realised that I was looking at the situation in the wrong way. The more I thought about it the more I understood that their doubt was not about me, it was about them. I mentally put down my weapons, laughed it off and moved on to another topic.

But the thought has stuck with me and, after some research and a lot of thinking, I have come up with a few key reasons on why doubt often says more about the ‘doubter’ than it does you:

1. It’s about them, not you.

When people doubt you it is often a reflection of doubt in their own ability. They question whether they would be capable of achieving such feats and, as a consequence, question your ability.

I see this a lot in the multi-generational workforce of today. I believe it occurs as a function of developing our opinions, responses and judgments through comparisons. We highlight the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and form our opinions by comparing the two groups. For example, I have frequently found that when older workers speak with me, a young Gen Y woman, they start with comparisons. They compare where they were at my age, what they were capable of and what they had achieved.

I have even had previous supervisors start the conversation with ‘Well young woman’ or ‘Ok young thing’ as if to highlight the difference in age, status and experience. Mentally I entertain responses such as ‘Yes old man’ or ‘Ok old fart’. In reality I’ll smile and move on because anything less is likely to result in my termination — and I like my job!

I believe that comments such as those of my previous supervisor reflect the comparisons that occur within the workplace today. Sitting behind this is the unsaid question: could they have achieved the same thing at your age or life stage? Often the answer is no and so the doubt-filled comments start rolling.

But this kind of thinking fails to acknowledge the changes to the world, workplace and workforce. Things are faster today. People are faster, technology is faster and decision making is faster. Look around you and you will likely see employees that are building their ‘experience’ by learning and failing fast. Sandra MacPhee AM refers to these workers as Agile Employees — they are problem solvers, collaborators, resilient to change and rapid decision makers. They test ideas early, fail fast and learn quickly.

The agile employee.

So you see, when an older worker judges my abilities based on where they were at my age it’s not a fair comparison. The world was different then. What they really doubt is whether they could have achieved it at the same age.

It’s about them, not me.

Plus it’s not always older people who doubt you. Bias exists in the reverse too. I have found that older people are often categorised as ‘inflexible’ or ‘rigid and doubted for their ability to be innovative and creative. There’s also evidence to suggest that older workers have higher, and harder, performance expectations than younger workers — managers assume that older people should know better and will punish them more severely for poor performance, even when their position is at the same level as a younger worker (Rupp, Vodanovick & Cred, 2006).

It’s almost like the magical age for success is somewhere between 30 and 55. Before or beyond this age range you are either too young or too old.

And it’s not always workers who doubt. Sometimes our friends, family, even acquaintances are our biggest critics.

But regardless of where the doubt arises from, the same rule usually applies — often they doubt themselves and their ability to achieve what you achieve. It’s about them, not you.

How you make others feel about their successes and opportunities often says more about you than them.

2. They don’t want you to succeed.

Because if you succeed, what have they been doing? It sounds harsh but it’s true.

3. It is part of the culture.

There is a tendency across Australia, likely drawn from our European grass roots, to ‘cut tall poppies down’.

Instead of celebrating the success of our friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances we tend to see their success as braggadocio or arrogance. We make it our job to cut them down to size.

But if you have ever been on the reverse side of the treatment you will understand how bad the medicine can taste.

So they doubt you…now what?

Doubt can have significant influence on our behaviour, particularly within the workplace. Other people influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviour— their doubt can make us reluctant to speak up, stand up or chase opportunities (Bohns & Flynn, 2013). In other words doubt can cause us to doubt ourselves, we loose our self-confidence (Raynor, 2015).

I say use it! Let it fill you. Reflect on it, doubt their doubt and let it motivate you. As the saying goes…. ‘doubt can only be removed by action’.

I realised that my family member’s doubt was based more on their own self-doubt and fear than mine. The only chance I had for slaying that doubt was through action. Even then it was unlikely they would support me but at least I would have achieved what I needed to.

Fields (2012) in his book on using fear and doubt to fuel brilliance refers to the ‘three psychic horsemen’. He takes examples of business people from all over the world who, when presented with opportunities, were met with:

1. high uncertainty (horseman 1)

2. risk of loss (horseman 2)

3. criticism and doubt (horseman 3)

Instead of letting that doubt override them, they rose to the challenge. They used the ‘three psychic horseman’ to propel them into success.

So I urge you to endure, to meet the doubt, to face the ambiguity and uncertainty. Push forward anyway. If others can do it, so can you.


Bohns, V. K., & Flynn, F. J. (2013). Understanding our influence over others at work. Research in Organizational Behaviour, 33, 97–112.

Fields, J. (2012). Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance. Camberwell, Victoria: Penguin Books Australia

Macphee, Sandra (2015). Unlocking Portential — If not us, who? If not now, when? Australian Public Service Workforce Management Contestability Review. Retrieved from http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications-and-media/current-publications/unlocking-potential-report

Raynor, B. (2015). Ageism in action? Ageism inaction! Generations, 39, 58–63.

Rupp, D. E., Vodanovick, S. J., & Cred, M. (2006). Age Bias in the Workplace: The Impact of Ageism and Causal Attributions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36, 1337–1364.